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Fines steer critical funds to localities

Bad driving isn't all bad.

In fact, it can be profitable for local communities.

Local town and village courts collect millions of dollars in fines every year -- nearly $12 million in Erie and Niagara counties last year -- the majority coming from traffic fines.

Communities keep most of the money they collect, making court revenues an important and reliable source of revenue.

That's particularly important today, with local budgets under pressure from rising costs.

"If that money were to dry up, it would be a significant loss," said West Seneca Supervisor Wallace C. Piotrowski.

A study of the Justice Court Fund, administered by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, shows:

* Amherst Town Court continues to be tops in total revenue collected in Western New York -- $2.9 million -- and was No. 2 in all of New York State last year. Cheektowaga collected $2.6 million and was fifth in the state, while the Town of Tonawanda collected $2.2 million and was eighth. Total revenue includes local, county and states shares.

* Courts kept from 48 percent to 100 percent of fines, forfeitures, surcharges and fees last year.

* Growing communities, such as Lockport and Wheatfield in Niagara County, more than doubled revenues in 10 years.

Local courts get to keep fines for violations that occur within their town or village, like parking violations or violations of local noise or building ordinances. But fines for moving violations, like speeding, go to the state.

That's why many local courts routinely reduce speeding tickets to parking violations. The guilty pay a price, the state receives most of the surcharge and the parking fines go to the town or village.

According to a report by the State Comptroller's Office, 52 percent of all speeding tickets were pleaded down in 2009.

And that's why local officials objected loudly when the state tried to eliminate the local traffic fine money in 2004.

"Is it important? Very much so," said Brian Krause, director of administration and finance in Cheektowaga. "Nowadays revenues are drying up everywhere."

Krause said the revenues help to defray the cost of the system but don't come close to covering the entire cost of police and courts.

> Drivers not upset

Among the unlucky drivers to get a traffic ticket in Cheektowaga recently was Tanisha Hicks, 27, of Buffalo.

Last month, Hicks, who was nine months pregnant at the time, was rushing home on the Thruway to use her bathroom when a state trooper pulled her over.

"I got a speeding ticket," she said. "But the prosecutor reduced it down to one parking ticket if I was willing to go to driving school."

Hicks shelled out $25 for driving school and Friday, she stopped by Cheektowaga Traffic Court to pay an $85 fine.

"I believe they could be more lenient, give someone a break court -- and fines -- is attractive.

But, in the end, Hicks was happy to not be paying more for her ticket.

"I'm not upset," she said. "I could have had points on my license, and it did get reduced to a parking ticket."

Kaci McCranely, 38, of Buffalo, also ended up with a parking ticket in Cheektowaga, but hers was reduced from a charge of driving with a suspended license.

When McCranely's car was rear-ended in May, the Cheektowaga police officer who responded to her accident informed her that her license had been suspended. She had failed to pay a speeding ticket out of the Rochester area that had been issued to her over a year earlier.

"They never sent me anything about my license getting suspended," McCranely said.

She came to court last month and met a row of other drivers in similar situations who were waiting for their turn before the judge. All of them, she said, had their charges reduced to $75 parking tickets.

"They were giving out tickets crazy for however long, and they were reducing it down to $75," she said. "It was a bunch of us they were doing that to."

Hamburg was one of eight courts keeping less money between 2001 and 2010. Town officials said there had been vacancies on the police force, and with fewer officers, fewer tickets got written. The collections went from $608,985 to $598,893.

Supervisor Steven Walters also said tickets are considered traffic enforcement, not revenue enhancement.

"Tickets are issued to keep our roads safe," he said.

> Court revenues rise

In Lockport, the local share jumped 129 percent in 10 years to $381,000.

"We've had a lot of discussion here over the last few years about adding staff because they're so busy," Supervisor Marc Smith said.

Having control over one's court -- and fines -- is attractive.

Before Springville created its Justice Court about seven years ago, it received no court revenues. Last year, it took in more than $170,000, and the village kept more than $103,000.

Village Administrator Timothy L. Horner said the village did not institute its own court just to get traffic fines. It was unhappy with the way some Concord town justices handled village building code violations.

But the village also realized that money from the tickets being written by village cops went to Concord, which had no police department.

"We just felt by forming our own court we'd have the ability to recoup some of our costs of police and law enforcement," Horner said.

Money that comes into town and village courts is deposited daily into each judge's bank account. A report detailing where each dollar came from is made monthly to the state, which then tells municipalities how much is due the state and county.

> Fines vary per case

Court observers say the amount of each fine depends heavily on the individual justice.

While there are maximum fines defined by statute, many violations allow a range of fines to be imposed.

Some judges have levied the same fine for a particular charge for many years. Others may raise the fine slightly each year.

Piotrowski, who was West Seneca town justice before being elected supervisor, said he levied fines based on the charge and the guilty driver in front of him.

Judges and police know the more tickets written and the higher the fines, the more money goes into their town's coffers. But town officials said the justice courts are independent of town boards.

"I have never asked a judge to increase his fines," said Piotrowski.

He does recall, as a judge, the subject being raised in a joking manner. He said one reason court revenues have risen in West Seneca is a state police push to enforce seat belt laws. The town also has a traffic detail that goes on the road at least once a week.

"Those two details over the past 10 years have increased the tickets," Piotrowski said.

It also helps to have a major highway running through the town, like Route 400 or 219, the Thruway or Youngmann Highway or Transit Road.

A section of Route 400 runs through Elma, and Transit Road borders the town. Elma Town Court kept almost $292,000 last year, enough to cover 12 percent of the town's general fund. Tonawanda Supervisor Anthony F. Caruana said his town got a bump last year from tickets state police wrote for violations in construction zones on Routes 290 and 190.

"The majority of that increase is ticketing in the construction zones," he said.

Court fines and surcharges also are an important funding source for New York State, which saw its revenues from local justice courts jump 26 percent over the past five years, to $119.7 million last year.

While court fines usually don't pay for an entire police force, they usually more than pay for the cost of operating the court.

"It really does mean a lot, especially when other revenues are under attack," said Drescher, the accountant.

"Are they told to hit a number? No. Absolutely not," said Krause, of Cheektowaga. "Do we budget for this revenue? Sure we do."

News Staff Reporter Maki Becker contributed to this report.