As local drivers took to the roads this week for the official beginning to the holiday season, they had to watch their speedometer closely as they headed to grandmother’s house.
Two cities in Habersham County and three in Rabun County were listed in a report by Fox 5 Atlanta of Georgia cities that have an unusual amount of their municipal operating budget coming from traffic fines.
Topping the list locally was Tallulah Falls, which the report claimed got 41.4% of its operating budget from fines.
Tallulah Falls Police data shows that the numbers reported under Senate Bill 134 – which makes it easier to win in court if given a ticket by law-enforcement agency that gets more than 40% of its revenue from traffic citations – are a little lower.
The reporting forms ask for tickets that are 20 mph over the limit or less, and with those figures considered, Tallulah Falls had $40,400 worth of citations in that category in fiscal year 2016-17 (31% of budget) and $43,890 in 2017-18 (29%).
If all speeding revenue is reported, the numbers practically double in both years, but those are not the figures reported to the state under Senate Bill 134.
Tallulah Falls has not been cited by the state as an official speed trap, which would limit their ability to use radar and other devices under the bill.
Travelers of U.S. 23 know well that the speed limit drops from 65 down to 55, then 45 on the way through Tallulah Falls on the four-lane highway. There also is a school zone on the highway through that area.
Habersham municipalities Demorest (19.5% of revenue from fines, according to the report) and Baldwin (15.8%) also made the list.
Demorest Police Chief Robin Krockum said some of the numbers in the story were misleading, as numbers used in the Fox report included revenue for fiscal year 2016-17 that included revenue from all citations, misdemeanor charges and probation fees made through the court.
Krockum did his own study on June 1, 2017, and discovered 155 speeding citations between January and May of that year. Revenue during that time was $17,407, with a matching departmental budget of $706,463, putting the speeding revenue for that time at 2.5% of the total.
“At that point I didn’t see the need to break the revenue down to remove those citations that were above 20 miles per hour,” Krockum said. “In order to be out of compliance with the 35% new rule, we would have had to have revenues in excess of $247,262 just from speeding cases that were below 20 miles per hour.”
Based on the study, Demorest’s revenue from fines and forfeitures during 2017 was actually 19.5% of the general fund, but not the total revenue of the city of Demorest.
“Our focus has always been on traffic safety and never on revenue,” Krockum said. “Our goal is to reduce the amount of injuries and fatalities from crashes in our area. We care about the safety of all of our residents and of those that may travel through our city.”
Baldwin Police Chief Charlie Webb said the figures presented in the Fox report were close, saying the 15.4% of the 2018-19 operating budget of the city came from speeding fines. He added that speeding fines have accounted for about 5.5% of the operating budget of this fiscal year through Oct. 31.
Webb said he did not believe that the percentage was unusually high, citing that “speeding violation revenue cannot be equal to or exceed 35% of the annual law enforcement agency budget.”
Baldwin Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Parrish said Tuesday that the city does not set a quota or encourage police to write a certain number of citations. He provided statistics that Baldwin Police issued 128 traffic citations and 33 traffic warnings in October, with the Georgia State Patrol issuing 33 citations in Baldwin as well.
Parrish did not have figures for Habersham County’s citations during that time.
“One reason three different law enforcement agencies work this highway is because of the high number of speeders. Likewise, many motorists coming up from Banks County going 65 miles per hour fail to slowdown coming into Baldwin on Highway 441,” Parrish said.
“A few years ago, we got the state to post signs slowing down to 55 on both sides of the highway and then to 45. Additionally when that was not enough, we asked them to paint huge speed limits on the road itself. That was done to slow traffic down and avoid writing tickets. The highway painting seemed to help slow down the traffic on 441 coming into Baldwin.”
Earlier this year, the state resurfaced the road and though Baldwin’s council asked to have the speed limit painted back on the roadway, it has not been done yet.
“It would be interesting to see how many small towns have two major roads coming through town where many come through at very high speeds,” Parrish said. “In reality, if we were trying to derive income from traffic stops rarely would the police issue warnings, in my opinion they would all be tickets.”
Rabun County municipalities Mountain City (57%) and Dillard (55%) cracked the state’s top 10, while Clayton came in at 24.6%.
The city limits of Dillard make a bowl-shaped semicircle, except for two antennae of jurisdiction that branch out to the North Carolina state line on U.S. 23 and Georgia Highway 246. Those extensions only contain the highways themselves.
Mountain City’s boundaries are a near perfect circle that is virtually bisected by U.S. 23.