HOUSTON—Try telling Devin Barrera that cops are writing fewer tickets.
A lively University of Houston student wearing an old Astros ballcap, Barrera showed up at Houston’s municipal courts building to shell out $80 for two tickets he picked up during the last month.
“It’s a bummer, man,” he said as he pulled cash out of his wallet.“Being in college and having to pay $80 is not something you want to do.”
If it’s any consolation, data buried in a dry financial report presented by Houston’s city controller show an unmistakable trend. Houston police are writing fewer traffic tickets, a phenomenon that’s cutting scofflaw drivers a break, but also costing the city government an estimated $500,000 in anticipated revenues.
Traffic ticket numbers vary from month to month, but they’re consistently down. For example, data from the city controller’s office indicates HPD officers wrote 40,425 citations last December, a dramatic decline from the 65,151 written a year earlier. The overall trend in the last fiscal year shows a decline of roughly 21 percent.
“A big issue is, as the federal government has cut back, there’s a lot less money available for overtime for traffic enforcement,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “We had some significant pots of money from the federal government that were directed directly to traffic enforcement.”
But both the mayor and union leaders offer another intriguing reason for the drop. They point to personnel changes within the police department that have transferred some of the busiest ticket writers into other jobs.
Union leaders specifically cited Officer Matt Davis, a man who was once dedicated to full-time traffic enforcement duty, who used to write more tickets than any other cop on the force. During a single one-year period between August 2011 and August 2012, he wrote 20,714 citations. Last year, Davis was transferred out of traffic enforcement.
“One person writing tickets for eight hours a day—and that’s their sole responsibility because they’re not responding to calls for service, but they’re trying to enforce the traffic laws—can make a significant impact on the number of tickets that are written,” said Ray Hunt, the president of the Houston Police Officers Union.
A $500,000 hit on the city budget might sound significant, but the mayor emphasized that it would have little impact on a local government bankrolled mainly by property and sales taxes. Traffic tickets have contributed about $20 million a year to Houston’s roughly $2-billion budget.
“Our ticket revenue is a really, really small fraction of a percent of the general fund revenue of the city,” Parker said.”But we monitor closely all revenue streams.”
Generations of Houston mayors have learned they shouldn’t rely on a steady flow of money from traffic tickets. Two decades ago, disgruntled police officers demonstrated their displeasure with then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire by staging a sort of work slowdown, almost openly acknowledging they were writing fewer tickets to put pressure on the mayor. But the gyrations in citations are generally blamed on more arcane problems.
“Ticket issuance ebbs and flows,” Parker said. “If we have a lot of weather events during the course of the year, ticket writing goes down. It’s not a steady state.”