Recently the Arch City Defenders brought a class action suit against thirteen municipalities for their abusive practices, which includes jailing residents who are too poor to pay their fines and fees. Also known as debtors prisons, this practice was supposedly banned from the United States in 1833. Previous to the suit, the state recently enacted municipal court reform measures in an attempt to curb these practices. Yet, we as a region continue to overlook why these practices exist in the first place.
No doubt the answer to this question is a long and complicated one. However, the simplest explanation is that these municipalities are too small to succeed. 43 municipalities sit on one square mile of land or less. That means that these tiny towns—no matter how strong or weak their leadership—cannot sustain themselves due to the small size of their tax and consumer bases.
Take Charlack for example. This city sits on 166 acres (or 0.25 square miles). With low assessment values Charlack is unlikely to raise the revenues it needs from property taxes or sales taxes in order to provide basic services. However, I-170 does run right through the middle of town...See where this is going?
To stay afloat Charlack uses its police department of eight full time officers to patrol this tiny stretch of interstate for revenue. To put this in perspective, this rate of patrol equates to about 30 officers policing one square mile. In 2014 it raised 28 percent of its revenue from fines and fees (Pine Lawn had the highest rate with 48 percent of general revenue raised from fines and fees).
So instead of receiving basic services, residents are policed for profit. Furthemore, their town's small size diminishes their political power and undermines their economic competitiveness.
Municipal court abuses and discriminatory policing practices are only symptoms of the system's root problem: these towns are too small to succeed.
Still, a deeper question now lingers...why are these towns so small? Next week we'll examine that question in part two of 'Too Small to Succeed.'