Revenue from Traffic Fines

So there’s this meme (or maybe: myth, urban legend, commonly held belief, or whatever) that governments generate lavish amounts from traffic ticket fines, and that’s the “real” reason why the need to ticket their citizens — nothing to do with safety of course; and probably particularly the case when mentioning photo-enforcement.

Traffic-ticket revenue brought in just over 1% of Phoenix's $1.03 billion budget
Traffic-ticket revenues bring in only 1% of Phoenix’s $1.03 billion budget

Here’s sort of a sample/classic fever-swamp hysterics: “What do speed traps, parking tickets, toll roads, speed cameras and red light cameras all have in common? They are all major revenue sources for state and local governments”. Major?

That could be true in some places, but it’s not true in Phoenix or Mesa (the Phoenix metro-area’s two largest cities) where revenue from traffic ticket fines including DUI bring in just a tiny fraction of the budget — and are net money losers because the revenues don’t account for the cost of law enforcement and courts. Traffic enforcement costs money, it does not “make” money.

These facts came to light in a story about a paper released by some ASU people who said (claimed?) that in the future one impact of self-driving cars would be to presage an enormous fiscal impact on cities.

“It turns out that automated vehicle technology — unlike humans — abides by the law. And that’s bad news for local government revenues,” the researchers wrote. “Deep revenue sources acquired from driving-related violations, such as speeding tickets and DUIs, will decrease sharply.”
Others differ with their vision of the future.
Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, believes the futurists’ concerns are misplaced.
“I’m assuming that these statements are coming from people that don’t have any idea how city budgets operate, because revenue from traffic tickets and DUIs is not a significant source of revenue,” he said.
Traffic tickets aren’t money generators for most municipalities, he said. Police expenses, court costs and related expenditures typically offset or exceed the revenue that tickets bring in. Traffic laws are enforced to promote safety, he said…
In Phoenix, bad-driver-funded revenue generates slightly more than 1 percent of the city’s budget, said Tracy Reber, director of the city’s Department of Budget and Research.
Phoenix collected $9.6 million in fines from most moving violations in fiscal 2014. Fines from DUIs brought in an additional $1.2 million for a combined $10.8 million.
Traffic-ticket revenue represented approximately 1.1 percent of the city’s entire general fund of $1.03 billion in 2014, a percentage that has remained fairly steady since at least 2011.
Circumstances are similar in Mesa.
Mesa collected $4.2 million in traffic-ticket revenue, which accounted for roughly 1.3 percent of the city’s $326.5 million general fund in fiscal 2014, said spokesman Steven Wright. A selection of other metro Phoenix cities could not immediately identify the amount of funding received from traffic-ticket fines — Panel: Self-driving cars will cost cities

Figures from Scottdale’s photo radar program

According to azrep’s 11/2/2015 story Scottsdale toughest in Arizona for photo radar?  (emphasis added)

Scottsdale city court collected about $4 million in photo-radar fines and related fees in fiscal 2013-14, according to an audit of the city’s photo-enforcement contract.

After recovering direct costs for the photo-enforcement program, the city’s general fund netted about $437,000 in revenue that year, the audit found. The general fund, which pays for basic city services, tallied $250.3 million that year.

…But Gruler (the defense attorney) argued that it is another example of a city cracking down on drivers to boost its coffers.

“It may not be that the city court is doing it on purpose,” Gruler said. “But photo radar is a big revenue generator. I believe that’s why they want to make the process more difficult.”

So the “big revenue generator” accounts for less than 2% of Scottsdale’s general fund. And about two-tenths of 1% (0.2%) when the costs of the program are accounted for.

Tucson

There are specific figures and examples from City of Tucson FY15-16 report. The example given is a red light running citation; the City receives $169.03  of each ticket that totals $337. The rest is various state surcharges.

Revenue in the entire AZ court system has been declining year-over-year, for years, and  the “… trend in decreasing revenue continues to be driven by the overall decline in both criminal and civil traffic filings in the limited jurisdiction courts (muni and justice of the peace)”, emphasis added — Supreme Court Annual Report 2016

Newer Article

Has some good facts about how fines are calculated

Another sub-branch of the myth is that cities get hundreds of dollars per violation — this isn’t true, here’s a breakdown for example How a $95 Phoenix speeding ticket becomes $243 as of January 2016:

For example, when you pay Phoenix, say, $95 for a speeding ticket, you’ll also be required to pony up $79 for state programs.

The state then adds other flat fees — $13 for police training, $2 for a victims’ rights fund, $7 for a court-restitution fund and $20 for the county’s probation department.

Then there’s the additional $27 to support court technology, creating a $243 obligation — an increase of 156 percent from the base fine.

So the city, in this example Phoenix, gets $127 (that’s the $95 base fine plus $27 city court “technology fee”) of the total fine

In other words, the city — the one that foots the bill for enforcement and courts — gets only half of the fine, the rest going to various other state-mandated fees. Critics would undoubtedly point out that $243 is $243 to the violator, regardless of where the money goes. But the whole point is that incentives matter, both to the city, and to the violator. The city is at best breaking even on costs; while the violator has the full $243 incentive to not to commit a violation.

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Here’s another related story about court programs to assist violators with paying fines; unpaid fines rapidly accumulate problems for violators, and can quickly lead to license suspension, when subsequent violation can then become a criminal matter azcentral.