By Megan Davies and Dan Burns
NEW YORK (Reuters) - When calm and order is finally restored to Ferguson, Missouri, the city's leaders may find little room to maneuver to resolve an issue that has long inflamed racial tensions: traffic tickets.
On the surface it would seem an easy fix for the mainly white police force simply to adopt a less aggressive policy on traffic stops, which overwhelmingly and disproportionately snare black motorists.
That may be easier said than done, though.
Traffic fines are the St. Louis suburb's second-largest source of revenue and just about the only one that is growing appreciably. Municipal court fines, most of which arise from motor vehicle violations, accounted for 21 percent of general fund revenue and at $2.63 million last year, were the equivalent of more than 81 percent of police salaries before overtime.
The heavy reliance on these funds is emerging as a thorny issue for Ferguson following the Aug. 9 shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white policeman Darren Wilson. Brown's death has sparked days of protests and nights of riots in the majority black community, many of whose residents complain about their treatment by Ferguson police.
"In the aftermath of this month's tragic events in Ferguson, the city will be forced to shift away from its increasing reliance on traffic fines as a revenue source," said James Parrott, chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute in New York. "Not only is it a self-defeating budget practice, but it has exacerbated racial tensions."
Ferguson's finance director declined a Reuters interview request and referred inquiries to the city manager who was not immediately available for comment.
The civil unrest has all but crippled the city of about 21,000, around a dozen miles north of downtown St. Louis, and has drawn an extensive and costly police response. Brown's family also has hired a legal team, raising the prospect that the city could face pricey litigation.
"One big unknown, aside from any potential lawsuit, is the tremendous cost of police overtime, which could lead to a troubling budget shortfall and force other tax and fee increases or service reductions," said Parrott.
STRIVING FOR BALANCE
Searching for other areas for revenue growth could prove an uphill task. The city describes itself as being in the midst of an "extraordinarily slow" economic recovery.
Sales tax receipts, for instance, have been highly variable since the recession, frequently falling short of projections. While fiscal 2014 sales tax receipts were budgeted for a 4 percent increase to just over $6 million, this revenue source remains some 13 percent below its peak in fiscal 2006 of around $6.9 million.
"Local economic circumstances continue to improve slowly, but steadily," the city's latest budget said. "Unfortunately, this trend has not carried over to retail sales activity and sales tax collections."
A property tax increase two years ago helped give an initial boost to that revenue line, but real estate taxes were forecast to dip slightly in the most recent budget year.
While the city denies in its budget that it explicitly targets court fines as a revenue source, it notes city police have placed greater emphasis on traffic control in recent years.
"Due to a more concentrated focus on traffic enforcement, municipal court revenues have risen about 44 percent ... from those in full-year 2010-2011," its 2013-2014 budget says. This has been boosted in recent years by the use of traffic cameras.
A study released last week by a group of St. Louis-area public defenders, ArchCity Defenders, detailed the perception of local black residents that they are singled out by the police for traffic stops and treated unfairly by the local courts.
"If you’re black, they’re going to stop you," the study quoted one traffic defendant as saying.
In 2013, 86 percent of all Ferguson police traffic stops involved black drivers, the largest share since the Missouri Attorney General's Office began tracking the data in 2000. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, the city is 63 percent black and 34 percent white.
"If the city were to try to be seen as not targeting blacks, but maintain similar revenue levels, then it would probably have to pull over a much higher proportion of whites," said Jeff Smith, assistant professor at The New School and a former Missouri state senator.
Arlando Travis, a 38-year-old owner of a landscaping business in Ferguson described how a friend of his, a minister, had been pulled over for a traffic stop.
"They see a 60-year-old and driving a $70,000 car and he can't find his insurance card ... he just forgot it, but they don't listen," Travis said. "Can't they use some common sense?"
(Additional reporting by Tim McLaughlin and Scott Malone in Ferguson, editing by Ross Colvin)