Code enforcement is taxation

Written by Marcos Camargo

Ogden, a little known city outside of Utah, made national headlines after a city code enforcement officer issued a citation to a man on April 1, for building a cardboard fort in front of his house. The fort, complete with slide, trap door, and mini trampoline, looks like a child’s weekend paradise. But to city officials, the fort looked like “junk or salvage material,” which city bans in residential neighborhoods.

But the strangest part of this true crime saga, at least to me, is that the officer issued the citation completely on his own—the fort never incited a complaint from neighbors, which is the typical reason behind handing out such a ticket. No one seemed to care about the existence of the fort—no one except for that pesky code enforcement enforcer. I imagine the intention of the law was not to keep kids from having a good time, yet it doesn’t surprise me that the fun police brought down the hammer of justice on these children’s springtime enjoyment. It’s probably safer for those kids to play video games indoors anyway—no risk of a twisted ankle or something as equally horrifying.

If you cannot yet discern my sarcasm, I can’t help you. I can, however, tell you that a significant number of ordinances are in desperate need of abolishment. And the good news is this: you can actually do something about it! Good luck making a significant impact on a federal level unless you have millions to spend on lobbying. But at the local level it takes only a few like minded individuals to apply enough heat and pressure to transform a cumbersome city code into a cut and polished legal document; and the money citizens will save, well, let’s just say a few actual diamonds may be affordable after the transformation. Because the truth of the matter—a truth your city doesn’t want you to know—is that the whole scheme is about money. More specifically, it’s about how the government wants your money, and they’re not going to pass up an easy chance at taking what they can get—even if it means stomping on children’s cardboard forts.

Ticketing people for minor code and traffic violations might as well be called a tax, because without this revenue many cities would suffer major cash shortages. The income garnered by local government from minor citations often accounts for more than a few extra pennies in city coffers. It’s not uncommon to find that the some of the most basic government functions rely on this money flow.

Bad city codes, and even worse code enforcement, are not unique to Ogden, or even Utah for that matter. Seemingly pointless laws exist, and are often enforced, in every state in the U.S. and almost every city in Utah. Remember how it’s against the law to swing your hips a bit too much when listening to music played at a business here in St George? And remember how Saint George police officers actually shut down a family friendly “monster mash” during a Halloween party at Fiesta fun last year? No ticket was issued at that event, but only because the owners quickly complied with the city’s demands.

So where does the money go? According to an article published March 30, 2015, by Time.com, the Nevada Supreme Court said it could be “completely broke” by May 1 due to a decrease of 170,000 traffic and parking tickets from 2010 to 2014. I am somewhat appalled that a state of less than three million somehow finds a way to issue half a million minor citations, but I am completely appalled that the Supreme court of Nevada is reliant on people breaking the law and getting caught. So the system that has the power to deprive you of your money relies on the funds obtained from depriving you of your money? Can you say conflict of interest?

It’s not just the court system that gets a piece of the seized assets, many police departments get a nice chunk of funding from money they seize and tickets they hand out. A March 14, 2015, article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch compares the number of tickets written by police in cities that receive substantial funding from citation revenue, versus cities that receive little or no monetary incentive from ticketing. All the cities chosen for the report lie in close proximity, suburbs of St. Louis. According to the report, the city of Alton, Illinois, population 27,690, wrote 6,653 tickets in 2013. Alton receives no money directly from citations. Compare those numbers to Ferguson, Missouri, population 21,111, which wrote 11,822 tickets last year.

When the boss gets a large payout for every ticket written, the officers feel pressured to keep the cash flow high and constant. It’s not only traffic infractions that bring in the dough. A September 3, 2014, article in the Washington Post says that the city of St. Louis frequently cites citizens for “loud music and other noise ordinance violations, zoning violations for uncut grass or unkempt property, violations of occupancy permit restrictions, trespassing, wearing ‘saggy pants,’ business license violations and vague infractions such as ‘disturbing the peace.’” It’s a strange day when the government can take your money for failing to mow the lawn.

Now back to Utah. In 2006, a new justice court opened in Ogden. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on July 1, 2006, that the opening of the new court building put pressure on the Ogden police to shift “the focus of their jobs…from fighting crime to writing tickets.” At the time, Ogden police sergeant Troy Arrowsmith said, “Our sliding performance scale means we write more citations, which means the justice court brings in more revenues to fund itself and other things in the city.”

The Ogden Police openly admitted that finding reasons to ticket citizens increases revenue to fund government operations and building projects. As previously stated, this amounts to taxation. But it’s a tax that is levied at the discretion of local law enforcement, leaving open the opportunity for bias and numerous other bureaucratic shenanigans.

When local municipalities enact code in order to protect “public safety,” citizens should be aware that it’s often really about money.

Marcos Camargo grew up in the rural heartland of Oregon. In 2003 he moved to Utah to find his place in the world and fell in love with the deserts of America’s arid country. An avid student of history and politics, he has a great interest in Western and Native American history and culture. He spends his free time exploring the wilderness of the Southwest. 

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