Pagedale, Missouri is a suburb of St. Louis that covers about one square mile of area and has a population of 3,300 people. With a territory and population that small, how can a municipality generate sufficient revenue to provide city services? According to a consent decree entered in federal court, Pagedale’s evident solution to the revenue problem was to fleece its own residents through a system of citations for claimed “nuisances” or code violations.
To people other than the residents of Pagedale, the kinds of violations that were the subject of citations seem pretty comical. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there were prohibitions against sagging pants, walking on the left side of a crosswalk, walking in a roadway if a sidewalk is nearby, or barbecuing in your front yard (unless it’s a national holiday), as well as bans on dish antennas, basketball hoops, volleyball nets, swimming or wading pools or other recreational equipment in the front of a house. Having mismatched curtains or a hole in a window screen also could be cited for code violations and produce fines.
But for the residents of Pagedale, it was no laughing matter. In 2014, Pagedale handed out 2,555 citations for such offenses — a 500 percent increase from 2010. In some years, proceeds from the fines assessed for the violations generated a quarter of the city budget. And in the meantime, residents were saddled with debt trying to keep up with the citations and fines.
Why did Pagedale resort to fleecing its own residents? According to the Post-Dispatch, what happened “was that Pagedale, along with some other municipalities, began raising money from non-traffic cases because of a Missouri law that caps the amount of revenue municipalities can collect from traffic fines.” In short, towns that used to be speed traps looked inward and decided poor residents would have to make up the revenue shortfall.
What does it tell you about “public servants” that, rather than cutting municipal budgets or developing legitimate alternative sources of revenue, they would prey on the people they are supposed to be serving? It tells you that, in some places at least, the concept of government has become perverted, and municipal employees are more interested in preserving their own jobs and paydays than in furthering the public good.
The Post-Dispatch gets it right when it says: “Municipalities that cannot deliver services without preying on citizens should be dissolved.” That seems like a rule that is so basic that it doesn’t need to be expressed — but evidently not. Have we really reached the point where we need to set rules against predatory practices by local governments against their own citizens?