The Bulletin

Which Virginia localities rely most on traffic fines for revenue?

By: - September 2, 2019 12:03 am

Interstate 64 outside of Waynesboro. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Emporia is a well-known speed trap, dreaded by heavy-footed drivers who might think the city near the border of North Carolina funds its operations entirely through the punishment of too-fast drivers.

But 124 miles away, there’s a town that relies on bad drivers’ traffic fines and similar payments more than Emporia: Eastville, a 200-person town on the Eastern Shore, has a $349,232 town budget that comes mostly (72%) from fines and forfeitures, according to an analysis by Governing magazine.

The Washington D.C.-based magazine created a database tracking how much localities around the country collected in court costs and other fines, like traffic tickets. The issue got national attention after a Ferguson, Mo. police officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, prompting widespread protests, the magazine wrote. Excessive fees and subsequent arrests for non-payment of those fees were part of the reason the Ferguson community didn’t trust police.

Governing’s analysis excluded any locality that collected less than $100,000 in fines and focused on jurisdictions in which fines and court revenues accounted for more than 10 percent of general revenues or where revenues exceeded $100 per adult resident. Eight Virginia localities made the cut.

“We found that for hundreds of mostly small cities and towns, fines are a critical source of funding, at times accounting for more than half of all general revenues,” the magazine wrote. That could become a problem for towns like Eastville that rely heavily on those fines to fund its basic operations.

“Mounting legal and political movements are targeting cuts to fines and court fees. The eventual proliferation of autonomous vehicles and improvements in driver technology could further one day drastically reduce traffic fines,” Governing wrote. “For these and other reasons, it’s an open question as to whether the financial viability of governments most dependent on fines could be threatened over the long term.”

Governing determined which localities in Virginia rely more on fine and court revenue by looking at the most recent annual financial reports filed with the state Auditor of Public Accounts. The magazine said no information was available for many small towns, since only localities with populations of 3,500 or more are required to submit annual financial reports to the state.

The magazine requested financial reports for some of those smaller governments that reported high fine collections in Census of Government surveys.

In addition to Eastville, the list of localities in which fines and forfeitures made up major pieces of the budget were:

  • Emporia (fines make up 2.7% of the city’s total revenues)
  • Sussex County (fines make up 4.7% of county revenues)
  • Brunswick County (fines are 5.6% of county revenues)
  • Greensville County (fines are 7.3% of county revenues)
  • Gordonsville (fines are 8.2% of the town’s total revenues)
  • LaCrosse (fines make up 20.8% of the town’s total revenues)
  • Waverly (fines are 34.8% of the town’s revenue, though Governing based that amount on a 2014 financial statement)

Governing wrote that many of the places that topped its nationwide list are in the South, where there are more rural areas with high poverty rates, limited or weakening tax bases and local independent courts.

In 2012, the General Assembly passed a law that would allow the state to take a percentage of the fine revenue localities collected. Drivers rejoiced, but localities considered it a financial loss. Lawmakers reversed the law in 2016, allowing localities to keep all of its fine revenue.

None of the places in Virginia made it to the top of Governing’s list of places that rely most on fine revenue. Many of the localities on that list are in Louisiana, where some towns use fines to fund 80-92 percent of their local budgets.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.