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Title: The price of taxation by citation: Case studies of three Georgia cities that rely heavily on fines and fees
Other Titles: Taxation by citation
Contributors: Carpenter, Dick M., II
Sweetland, Kyle
McDonald, Jennifer
Keywords: Municipal finance—United States
Municipal revenue—United States
Discrimination in criminal justice administration—United States
Issue Date: Oct-2019
Publisher: Institute for Justice
Place of Publication: Arlington, Va.
Description: Code enforcement is supposed to be about protecting the public by discouraging—via monetary sanctions—dangerous driving and other hazardous personal conduct or property conditions. But in practice, local governments may also—or instead—use their code enforcement powers to raise revenue. This is taxation by citation. It is not a new phenomenon, but only in the past few years has it become an object of national concern. Despite the fresh spotlight, little is known about cities that engage in taxation by citation, beyond a few particularly egregious examples. To gain a better understanding of taxation by citation, this study explores the phenomenon through the lens of three Georgia cities—Morrow, Riverdale and Clarkston—that have historically relied on fines and fees from traffic and other ordinance violations for large proportions of their revenues. Consistent with case study research methods, we drew upon public data, a survey of and interviews with residents, photo and video records, and direct observation of the three cities and their municipal courts, which process the cities’ citations. Our results show: Over a five-year period, Morrow, Riverdale and Clarkston generated on average 14% to 25% of their revenues from fines and fees, while similarly sized Georgia cities took in just 3%. Such high levels of fines and fees revenue account for the second largest proportion of the cities’ revenues and may indicate taxation by citation. The three cities’ fines and fees revenues peaked in 2012 before beginning to decline as tax revenues increased. These trends generally correspond to the recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s and the subsequent recovery. This suggests the cities—which are poorer than average, face uncertain economic futures and have few means of generating substantial revenues—may have seen fines and fees as a way out of a budget crunch. The sample cities issued many of their citations for traffic and other ordinance violations that presented little threat to public health and safety. Traffic violations posed only moderate risk on average, while property code violations were primarily about aesthetics. This suggests the cities are using their code enforcement powers for ends other than public protection.
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Appears in Collections:Monographic reports and papers (Publicly Accessible)

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