For decades, city officials say Kansas City police would write about 300,000 traffic tickets a year. The last few years that's dropped below 120,000, according to Kansas City Police Department records.
While that may be good for drivers, it’s bad for the city’s bottom line.
“So what we’re seeing is, not only a decline in the number of tickets but a decline in the corresponding revenue that are used to support city operations,” says Kansas City City Manager Troy Schulte.
It’s not just a little bit of money.
In 2016, fines generated $16.2 million. In 2017, that figure plummeted to $10.3 million, which is about what the city manager's office has budgeted for the coming fiscal year.
For much of last year, KCPD was down about 200 officers so fewer cops meant fewer tickets. But Schulte says the biggest reason was department policy. "The former chief really believed that they needed to be much more community oriented," he says.
Community oriented in this context means that former chief Darryl Forté preferred, in many cases, warnings rather than tickets.
That’s reflected in the number of tickets KCPD has written.
In 2016 169,568 citations. In 2017 just 116,454.
But the pace is picking up.
“We have written 3,000 more tickets year-to-date this year than we had last year. So we’re very happy about that,” Deputy Chief Sharon Laningham, who commands the Patrol Bureau, told the police board this week.
The uptick is a direct result, she says, of Chief Rick Smith ordering more traffic enforcement. “I think it would be fair to say moving to more citations, away from the warnings."
KCPD has also been trying to reduce the number of fatal accidents. Last year about 100 people died on Kansas City roads, a 37 percent increase over 2016. Police aren't sure why, but they hope writing more tickets will not just generate more money but reduce fatal accidents.
So far this year, seven people have died in fatal crashes down from 14 at this time last year.
City Councilwoman Jolie Justus, who is on council’s finance committee, warns against using fines as a major funding source. “I personally disagree with using violations of any sort to be a revenue enhancer, she says. "I do think you need to use the enforcement in order to change behavior. I also think there is a cost of doing business in the city, and if you violate our laws while you’re in the city, you need to have to pay for that.”
Fines are only about one percent of Kansas City’s $1.6 billion dollar budget, so the city is not as reliant on them as some towns in St. Louis County that were using fines to fund big chunks of their budgets.
While fines don’t go directly to public safety, the police and fire departments make up the biggest share of the city budget, so they benefit from more ticket writing. “So 76 percent of our costs in the general fund are directly related to public safety, so if there’s declining revenues in the general fund, it makes it that much harder to support those critical operations,” says City Manager Schulte
The Kansas City Council is scheduled to pass the new budget on Thursday. It includes an increase for public safety while funding for other city departments remain flat.