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Portrait of a speed trap: Foley, Mo.

Portrait of a speed trap: Foley, Mo.

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FOLEY • The economic engine of this tiny burg in northern Lincoln County has been a gravel parking lot on the side of an abandoned convenience mart on Highway 79.

It’s where Foley Police Capt. Jesse Blunt took cover one recent morning, pointing a radar gun out his car window.

Close to nothing else happens in this 84-acre slice of Mississippi River flood plain, situated about a 20-minute drive north of bustling St. Peters. The town, under a perpetual threat of flooding, was partly underwater in 2008 and held its breath again as floods came close in January.

The old mart, known as the Pink Store, is long closed. The Foley Bar, despite its “Open” sign, hasn’t poured a cold one since 2011. Boards cover doors and windows of a gas station that used to do business as Family Market. Nobody is home at an antiques store.

When a visitor asked to use the restroom at the Foley Post Office, the clerk had a response ready: The closest public toilet is five miles down the highway in the next city, Winfield.

The 2010 Census counted 161 residents — 66 fewer people than Foley had in 1910. Not quite a ghost town, Foley is more of a zombie. A government keeps going thanks to revenue from its municipal court.

• Municipal courts: A progress report on reform

Audits show municipal court problems extend beyond St. Louis County

Now that’s in danger of going away, too.

Last month, a state audit found that the city has run far afoul of a state law limiting revenue cities can keep from traffic cases.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway said that in 2014, Foley exceeded the cap by at least $209,057. Now it has to pay that money back to be distributed to area schools. The city says it will pay in installments.

The law in effect in 2014 said a city could not derive more than 30 percent of its revenue from traffic cases. That year, Foley got about 85 percent of its $377,000 in revenue from the municipal court.

The city has agreed to send $209,000 back to the state, in installments, to comply with the 30 percent. But with precious few other sources of revenue, the community is still highly dependent upon traffic cases.

Last year, as part of a municipal court reform bill, Gov. Jay Nixon signed a law that reduces the amount of revenue a city can keep from its municipal court to 20 percent of its general operating revenue. (In St. Louis County, the limit is lower, 12.5 percent.)

The state crackdown on municipal courts was aimed at municipalities, many of them in St. Louis County, that had turned traffic enforcement into a cottage industry.

It means Foley has to get by with even less money.

Inside a tiny city hall on a recent day, the phone kept ringing with questions for Foley’s city clerk and municipal court clerk Dee Evans, who also drives a school bus route.

A woman called with a question — could she stop by with her fine the day after her court date without having a warrant issued for her arrest?

Sure, Evans said.

Another caller asked for the city’s website for paying fees.

It’s ipaycourt.com, then slash Foley, she answered. Which one is the slash? the caller asked. It’s the kind of line that slants upward, not down, Evans clarified.

Evans has been on the job for only a few weeks. As city clerk, she’s in control of the books.

She says it doesn’t look good. The city is burning through cash and will be broke soon.

The city’s financial statement says it collected only $5,800 from property taxes in 2014.

“It’s upsetting,” she said.

Mayor Keith Vertrees, who is facing re-election in April after serving one year of his predecessor’s unexpired term, insists his town is not merely a speed trap. He said the auditor who visited his court confirmed that the city was writing tickets for safety and not revenue.

People drive fast on Highway 79, and many don’t slow down in Foley, he said.

“I’ve got kids in this town we need to keep safe,” he said.

Galloway said she wasn’t sure what her audit staff member had said to Vertrees, but emphasized that the point was moot. The law is the law, she said.

“Whether it’s a town of 100 people or a town of 100,000 people, it should abide by the law,” she said.

Vertrees said he didn’t agree with Evans’ opinion that his city is finished. He has plans to run a concession stand at the ballfield for Little League games, and to convert part of a maintenance shed into a bingo hall.

As for all the closed businesses along the highway, he said there were plans to open all of them again.

“I’ll do everything I can to help this city survive,” he said. “And we will do things the right way.”

The town’s economic center may be moving from the old Pink Store to a former church a few blocks away, where some real economic development is taking place.

That’s where Ida and Don Payden of Winfield recently moved their two businesses, St. Charles Security Service Inc. and OK Property Management.

Ida Payden bought the old church as an investment a few years ago and decided to move her workers there after her office in Winfield flooded last year.

The old church will be headquarters for 25 to 50 security guards. The Paydens plan to open a gift shop.

“I am really glad that I could help this town,” she said. “I hope with me and my company we will help the town grow.”

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