PAGEDALE • 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.
Faye Millet, one of the aldermen who wrote the newsletter, said the ordinances are aimed at safety and quality of life. Pagedale is in the midst of a massive redevelopment effort, aimed at drawing businesses to its main corridors and restoring a population that has fallen off since the 1960s.
“Even I have a letter from the city saying I have to do certain things to my property,” she said, pointing out that nobody wants to be surrounded by derelict homes.
But there’s more to the story.
Pagedale handed out 2,255 citations for these types of offenses last year — or nearly two per household. That’s a nearly 500 percent increase from five years ago, according to an analysis of state court data by the Post-Dispatch.
And yet none of the fines and fees from these offenses count under the Macks Creek Law. The law is the state’s one tool for keeping cash-hungry municipalities from relying too much on court fines for revenue.
But it has a major blind spot: Its revenue limits apply only to traffic cases.
Cities and villages have no restrictions on raising revenue from other types of tickets.
In Pagedale, 40 percent of last year’s citations were from nontraffic matters, according to the newspaper’s analysis. More than half of tickets in Ferguson and four other communities were for nontraffic violations.
A bill awaiting Gov. Jay Nixon’s signature would put stricter caps on how much cities can raise from traffic revenue. But some worry this will only drive communities toward the type of ticketing that has no limits — the kind that has blanketed Pagedale.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that because (the bill) is limited to moving violations it would be very easy for these towns to simply shift to property violations or sagging pants or these other issues,” said Thomas Harvey of ArchCity Defenders, a legal group that has fought for municipal court reforms.
Notable, he said, is these are the types of citations “that actually more directly impact the residents in their community.”
TICKETS FOR TREES
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.”
The latest citation was for a tree limb that fell onto their garage during a winter storm, the couple said. They waited until their insurance company assessed the damage, then placed the chopped up limb on the empty city lot next door. Before a tree service could pick it up, the city’s housing and sanitation inspector arrived.
The couple explained the situation but said it didn’t matter. They received another ticket.
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.
“We get by, but we don’t have all this money in the bank,” Blount said.
Each ticket requires a court appearance, because there’s no set fine to be paid by mail. When Blount, fed up, misses court he is charged with failure to appear. Not only has it added to his bill, it has also landed him in a Pagedale holding cell — four times, for a day or two each.
The couple say they can’t afford to move because they are putting two kids through college. Their daughter is studying at the St. Charles Art Institute. Their son is at University of Missouri-St. Louis, pursuing a career in criminal justice.
“We work hard to get them through college so they don’t hopefully have to go through this same kind of (stuff),” Blount said.
KEEPING UP A COMMUNITY
A review of records in about a dozen courts showed an array of ordinances similar to those in Pagedale. High grass is a common violation, as are fines for not having a city vehicle sticker or an occupancy permit that lists every household member.
“We’ve definitely cracked down on code violations,” said Calverton Park Mayor Jim Paunovich, when asked about his city’s 164 percent increase in such tickets since 2010. “We sent about 100 last week.
“If you have gutters hanging down, if the grass is too high, if you cut down a tree, and it’s just laying in the yard,” he said, ticking off things that can earn a citation.
But Paunovich said vigilance on property upkeep is something residents want.
“We are an older neighborhood and once that cancer hits, you can’t get rid of it,” he said.
Pagedale Mayor Mary Louise Carter said the same goes for her community. The people who complain, she said, are keepers of problem properties the city has been dealing with for years. Millet, the alderman, put it another way: “They’re too damned lazy to do what they’re supposed to do.
“Just do one thing off of that list — one thing — and they’re not going to bother you,” she said. “But if you don’t do one thing knowing it could be unsafe to have a splinter in your railing or a big crack in the sidewalk where a high heel could get stuck ...”
Carter disputed any notion that the ticketing is aimed at wrangling more money for Pagedale.
“That’s not true, definitely not true,” she said. “If you get the money and the city goes to pot you haven’t accomplished anything. The ticket is the last resort. It’s not to get the money, it’s to get the violations corrected.”
Carter said she always gives people extensions if they ask. The sticky notes on the doors, she said, are just warnings. People are given several days after that to get their property in shape.
But in a quick drive around the city, a reporter found several warnings for high grass that gave people just one day. One woman who received such a warning, Judy Nolen, 42, said the short notice was unfair. She works full time and had to get her brother to help on a moment’s notice. She had heard stories about the city mowing grass that wasn’t tended to and billing the homeowner.
Carter said the city does that only for the most neglected properties.
A friend of Nolen’s, Maria Hill, said she lives in Ferguson, where “they are notorious” for piling on tickets for small lapses.
“He’ll get out of the car with his ruler,” she said, of the city inspector measuring grass.
“I had a light bulb, it had fallen. All they had to do was knock,” she said.
Instead, they gave her a ticket.
Vernon Virgin, 57, operates a tree-cutting service from the property he owns in Pagedale. He recently received a letter from the city asking him to make 29 fixes within 30 days or he would be forced to vacate. He agrees the place is somewhat run-down but said he is trying to make repairs.
“I’ve been arguing back and forth with that mayor for 20 years,” Virgin said. “They go from high grass to now you need a new porch to now you need a new roof and your windows need to be replaced. It just goes on and on and on and on.”
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said she could see both sides. Municipalities need to ensure public safety, she said, but she also understands concerns police will start ticketing houses instead of cars.
Reading the list of infractions in Pagedale, she said, “Much of this list appears to be safety-related. But again, if the municipality is being intentionally excessive, I would understand why some people would feel overburdened or bullied.”
It’s difficult to tell how much municipalities make off these violations, because until recently the state hadn’t required a breakdown of court revenue. Fines vary case by case on nontraffic matters. But they can be steep.
In Hanley Hills, where 60 percent of cases are the kind that don’t count toward Macks Creek, a man who was arrested in July 2013 on state gun and drug offenses was also cited for a host of ordinance violations.
The prosecutor’s recommendation: $488 for having a home unfit for habitation, $100 for improper trash storage, $250 for having no dog license, $478 for violating minimum housing standards, $478 for having no occupancy permit and $228 for not participating in the city trash program. Each carried court costs. A few could be reduced to $150 if the home was brought into compliance.
Another Hanley Hills woman has a court file several inches thick. She has been cited repeatedly over the last decade for three types of violations: no auto sticker, no license and high grass. Every time she didn’t show in court she would get a failure to appear charge — one for each of her pending violations — causing her fines to balloon. Her total tab in Hanley Hills: $2,986.
In June 2013, the woman wrote a letter to the court.
“I know when you look at your records it appears I have willfully ignored my business with you but this is not true,” she wrote.
She told of mental health issues and going broke, losing “everything — my business, my home, my kid in jail, everything but the sanity of my mind.”
On a fixed income and caring for a 93-year-old mother and special needs child, the woman asked to be placed on a payment plan or to do community service.
The court chose the former. By April, she had paid $1,824 off.
Reached by a reporter at her home, a tidy bungalow with a well-maintained lawn, the woman declined to comment and asked that her name not be used. Visibly shaken, she said she just wanted to move forward and put the ordeal behind her.
Top 10 cities for nontraffic cases
|City||pct. nontraffic cases|
|Velda Village Hills||42.4|
Jeremy Kohler and Walker Moskop of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.