An ominous letter from Hennepin County District Court Administrator Mark Thompson has arrived at every city hall in the county.
It warns that if the state budget for courts is cut by $6 million, as Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposes, courts would very likely be unable to prosecute parking and traffic offenses, which last year generated more than $16 million in revenue for Hennepin County cities.
In Minneapolis alone, the fines brought in more than $8 million to pay police salaries during 2008. Bloomington and Edina each received more than $900,000 from traffic tickets issued in their cities last year. Minnetonka and Brooklyn Park took in more than $500,000 each, and Eden Prairie more than $400,000.
Startled by the potential lost revenue, some cities, including Minneapolis, are exploring options for prosecuting traffic tickets themselves.
In his letter, Thompson told cities it would be possible to transfer some enforcement and collection responsibilities from the courts to municipalities in which the violations occurred. But "doing so would require you to establish new administrative mechanisms,'' he said.
"If the courts go out of [the traffic ticket] business, then the municipalities will need to start handling these themselves,'' said Susan Segal, city attorney for Minneapolis. "This is a big problem. The city and its residents are being caught in a tug of war between the governor and the courts over funding.''
Other cities also are concerned but waiting for state budget politics to play out.
"We are hoping the Legislature and governor understand that justice needs funding,'' said Minnetonka City Attorney Desyl Peterson. "If people knew the police officers were issuing speeding tickets but there were no consequences, there would be rampant lawlessness.''
A potential pullback
Over the next two years, the state has been facing a $6.4 billion budget deficit, which has been reduced to $4.6 billion as a result of $1.8 billion in federal stimulus money. In light of the shortfall, Pawlenty has recommended that the courts receive about $6 million less in 2010-11 than the roughly $103 million budgeted for them in 2008-09.
Thompson's letter addresses that proposal in the wake of louder warnings from Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson. Magnuson has said that if the governor's 5 percent budget cut comes to pass, he will recommend shutting down conciliation court, cutting hours and suspending prosecution of 21 types of cases, including property damage, harassment, probate and more than 1 million traffic and parking cases a year.
The League of Minnesota Cities says this potential pullback by the courts has given new urgency to its ongoing campaign to win cities clear legal authority to write "administrative" citations for quality-of-life code violations and for low-level traffic offenses.
Even though 60 to 100 cities already issue such administrative citations, Minnesota's attorney general and state auditor have maintained they are illegal because the state does not specifically grant localities the authority to write such tickets.
Pawlenty has said courts cannot be immune to the economic crisis facing the country, and while he would try to adjust his budget for some of the court concerns, "they're also going to have to be more efficient."
Asked whether the governor would favor giving cities authority to prosecute their own tickets, Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said a working group of law enforcement officials and others have been meeting for two years to reach agreement on what ticketing authority cities should have. "We are hopeful they will settle on a compromise that all parties can live with. That's what we want,'' he said.
McClung added that several state laws require the courts to handle disputes and "it's debatable'' whether they could stop processing violations, regardless of their funding level.
Cities mull situation
Thompson said given other more pressing legal issues, traffic tickets are a low priority for the Hennepin District Court, and he wants cities to know that it's not mandatory under the state Constitution that the courts handle them.
Alan Madsen, city manager of Maple Grove, said the issue concerns him but he sees the discussion as "the normal gnashing of teeth that takes place when potential cuts of budgets are being kicked around.
"My sense is this will not take place,'' Madsen said. "I've got to believe that ways would be found to keep things the way they are now.''
Eden Prairie City Manager Scott Neal said losing ticket revenue of more than $400,000 would be a problem, but "I think the bigger concern is how we as citizens of this state are going to handle justice issues.
"We don't have any municipal structure that is set up right now that could handle the volume of moving and nonmoving violations that are created in our city,'' Neal said.
Brooklyn Park has been considering writing its own parking tickets and would have to consider having officers write city citations rather than state citations for speeding if the courts pull back, said City Manager Jamie Verbrugge. Speed control is an essential part of neighborhood livability, he said.
"We are not going to stop writing traffic tickets. If there is going to be a gap in collecting those revenues, then we are going to have to step in and fill the gap.''
Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711