Atlanta plans to tie city worker salaries to traffic court revenue

By Greg Grisolano, Land Line staff writer | 6/28/2013

In a move that supporters say will provide a dedicated revenue stream for annual raises for all city employees, the city of Atlanta plans to move forward with a plan to designate traffic court and ticket revenue for future pay increases.

Ken Allen, the president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local No. 623 in Atlanta, said the city’s move to dedicate money raised from traffic citations to a salary stream is designed to help the city provide annual incremental pay raises to all municipal employees, not just police.

“The ticket revenue goes to operations, period,” Allen said in a phone interview with Land Line. “One of the things that is a misconception and seems to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths is ‘Hey this is going to deal with pay increases.’ But it has nothing to do with an individual officer; it’s got nothing to do with only the Atlanta police department. It is a revenue stream to try to heal what’s going on in the department where we’ve constantly argued for these annual increments. … It’s not for police. It’s a revenue stream that will be for all employees.”

The story first caught the public’s attention earlier this month, when a memo authored by Allen stated that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed had proposed to tie future raises to revenues from traffic court and tickets. The memo raised concerns that tying salaries to ticket revenue could lead to an increase in citations.

Count OOIDA executive vice president Todd Spencer among those who are skeptical of the notion that tying salaries to traffic revenue will not lead to more enforcement.

“Regardless of stated intentions, when money is the motivator things can easily go off track,” he said. “Enforcement is big business and it’s getting bigger. And regardless of what some may say, it is the money that makes it grow.”

Both Allen and Anne Torres, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, dispute those claims.

“People need to understand, there is no addition, there is no request to write more citations any more than what the Atlanta police department is currently doing,” Allen said. “The difference is creating the efficiencies within the court system and within the officers themselves… We do not need to do anything other than the current traffic enforcement we’re doing. We just need to clean up the court system and make sure we’re not getting the cases dismissed because we’re not in court.”

In an email sent to Land Line earlier this week, Torres said the characterization that linking traffic ticket revenue to pay raises would create an indirect quota system is “not completely accurate.”

“The Reed administration believes that there is room for improvement in how APD engages in traffic court, especially regarding operations and the collections process,” Torres said in the email. “Just to be clear, there is no push to increase revenues through the writing of additional tickets.”

The problems with capturing that additional revenue originate in collections, rather than enforcement, according to Allen.

“This has been a problem officers have complained about for years,” he said. “Officers were having a lot of tickets that are being dismissed by officers not being in court or by people circumventing the system. We’ve had a very lax and inefficient process of collecting the revenues. People are able to go into court, plead guilty to a ticket. They tell them to pay at the window on the way out and people are able to leave without paying.”

Allen said he did not have any figures available on the number of traffic citation cases that had been dismissed due to officers not showing up to testify in court.

Neither Torres nor Allen were able to say exactly what percent of cases in the Atlanta traffic court were being dismissed because of police officers unavailability to testify. At deadline, the mayor’s office was not immediately available to comment on how much revenue they estimated the city would generate based on improvements to the traffic court and fine collection processes.

At one time, Atlanta’s ordinance read that city employees would receive an annual pay increase. But Allen said that ordinance was amended more than 10 years ago to read that employees “may” receive the increase. The change in language has set up an annual battle between employees and the city to find funding for annual raises.

“What we’ve been missing is annual increment increases in pay,” Allen said, and the lack of raises has led to attrition within the department.

“In the last decade, we’ve lost 925 officers,” he said. “If you look at the training cost alone, we’ve agreed it’s $85,000 from the initial time they turn in an application until they’re sworn in as a police officer. That’s $78 million that the city has lost on training officers that have left this department.

“The mayor felt that if we were able to recover these – and suggested the recovery of those revenues that are being inefficiently collected at this time – that that money could be earmarked for the employee pay raises,” he said. “And it’s not just police, it’s city employees.”

Spencer said he believes the changes could be made at a procedural level in the courts that would preclude the need to bring traffic enforcement into the equation.

“These are simply administrative functions related to the particular job,” he said. “These are things that, regardless of what your mission is as an organization, good management finds ways to remedy. If you don’t pay the fine, they issue a warrant for your arrest. I think that would be an easy one (to fix).”

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