Now that the many, many municipalities in St. Louis County face the prospect of a state law imposing a lower limit on how much revenue they can generate from traffic offenses (along with a credible threat of actually enforcing that law), they seem to be turning instead to non-traffic-related offenses, which aren’t covered by the new policy.
Drive through this working-class suburb filled with 1950s cottages and you will see many edged and weeded lawns. You’ll also notice orange sticky notes on the doors — at least one or two per street in many parts of town.
They are warnings the city gives to residents who violate local ordinances. And in this community of 3,304 residents, the list of what earns a ticket and fine is long.
Among the things that will be “closely monitored” through the spring and summer, according to a newsletter that recently went out to residents:
Pants worn too low or grass grown too high. Children riding bikes without helmets. Barbecue pits or toys in front yards. Basketball hoops in the streets.
There’s no loitering — described in city code as “the concept of spending time idly” or “the colloquial expression ‘hanging around.’” And, despite a citywide 20 mph speed limit, there’s no playing or walking in the street.
It isn’t difficult to guess which groups of people are most likely to be affected by laws against walking in the street, wearing one’s pants too low, or “spending time idly.” It’s also probably a lot easier to avoid citations for having toys lying about (I’m still a little surprised this could be illegal) if you have a nice long drive way, or trees or fences to conceal the front yard.
According to the Post-Dispatch, Pagedale has increased non-traffic related citations by 500 percent in the last five years. Here’s how this plays out for working class people:
Vincent Blount, 54, and Valarie Whitner, 55, have lived in Pagedale for 20 years. For at least the last seven, they’ve been battling Pagedale’s municipal court.
The couple say they’ve been ticketed for everything you can think of: high grass and peeling paint, an overgrown tree, not recycling and more.
“Every year. Every year,” said Blount, sighing. “They just got me again.” . . .
In April, the inspector sent a list of 17 demands for the property.
The couple were given a 30-day deadline to, among other things, add screens and curtains to the windows; remove a dead branch from a tree out back; replace a missing shingle; use weedkiller; finish repairing the garage; install a rear screen door.
The repairs cost money — money the couple have been using to pay the court. They pay $100 a month on a tab that has grown to $1,810. About $1,000 of that was due to nontraffic violations. They still have $800 to pay off.
Blount and Whitner both work full time — he at a container store; she at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
And as with traffic-related citations, if you fail to appear in court to answer any of these charges, they’ll issue a warrant for your arrest. Whitner told the paper he has been arrested four times.
I’ve seen some reactions to this ongoing story that boil down to, “Just follow the law, and you have nothing to worry about.” But it’s a lot easier to follow the law when you can easily take a day off work to mow your grass, hire a lawn care service to trim your hedges or take an afternoon to clean up after a storm brings down some tree limbs. That isn’t as easy to do if you’re working two or more jobs, have kids to take care of and can’t afford to hire someone to fix up your property. That brings the fines. Then you have to choose between taking time off work to go to court to pay those fines, which could hurt your relationship with your employer, particularly if it becomes a pattern, or skip the court dates, after which you’re looking at an arrest.
Pagedale, incidentally, is 93 percent black. Nearly a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line. It’s home to about 3,300 residents, and covers an area of a little over one square mile. Hanley Hills, also mentioned in the article, is 85 percent black. It encompasses all of .36 square miles and has 2,100 residents. Both have their own city hall, city officials, and police forces. If you draw about a 4-mile circumference around Hanley Hills, you’ll find at least 25 different city halls.