Interstate Traffic Fines Fuel Some Local Budgets

A number of American Press readers did a double-take Wednesday when they saw a front-page story about the town of Welsh paying its police officers $25 an hour to patrol Interstate 10 for traffic and drug violators. This is the same Jeff Davis Parish town where residents over four months ago voiced concern about the rising tide of gun violence and unsolved crimes within the city limits.

The situation got so bad town officials pleaded with State Police and the Jeff Davis Parish Sheriff’s Department for some desperately needed help. Citizens organized the Welsh Citizens Concerned for Public Safety, which stated its purpose.

“We citizens who work and live in the community and around Welsh are concerned about the risk of harm to our people and to the reputation of our town as a result of violence and unsolved crimes locally,” the organization said. “We want our town back. We resolve to organize, to be attentive to, and to support the efforts of law enforcement officials of our town, parish and state to keep the peace so that we and our children can be safe from harm and live in tranquility.”

State Police and the sheriff’s department heard their call and came to the rescue. Tommy Chaisson, the Welsh police chief, said having more police on the streets appeared to be deterring crime and violence.

“There’s been a difference,” Chaisson said. “It has been real quiet lately and I’d have to assume it is because we have so many police officers out there now.”

OK, so how is it Welsh has now decided to put police on Interstate 10? Have things gotten that much better? Maybe they have, but they won’t stay that way long if the police emphasis is put in the wrong places.

It’s no surprise to anyone that money — once again — appears to be the main motive behind the shift to Interstate 10. Police officers will be paid $25 an hour. And from June 1 to Sept. 30 this year, the interstate program generated nearly $35,000 from traffic citations. The take was over $185,000 from June 1, 2010, to May 31, 2011.

That money goes into the town’s general fund, and the police department uses about $60,000 for payroll and payroll-related expenses connected to the Traffic Enforcement Detail. Some is used for vehicles and equipment.

Whenever police are assigned to traffic duties like the TED program, ticket writing is one of the ways their performance is gauged. And town and city officials expect results since fines fuel their budgets.

Pity the poor motorists who all too often become the victims when they exceed the posted speed limits by a few miles per hour. The situation got so bad statewide the Legislature passed Act 188 of 2009 that puts restrictions on cities and towns not governed by home rule charters. They are supposed to forward fines and penalties to the state treasurer when citations are issued for exceeding the speed limit by less than 10 miles per hour.

Unfortunately, the law has been difficult to enforce. A year after the 2009 law went into effect it was reported during legislative hearings that Crowley was the only Louisiana city that had forwarded those fines to the state treasury. The revenues are used by the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission.

Cities and towns that put too much emphasis on ticketing motorists on nearby interstates often get the reputation of being speed traps. A 2007 legislative auditor’s report said a number of towns made more than 85 percent of their general budget revenue from traffic tickets.

Tourism is also affected. Consider what some motorists said who were ticketed on I-49 near Washington, La.

“I’ll be making many trips to Tulsa, but have decided not to spend any money on gas and food in money-hungry small town Louisiana, and will take my route and money through Mississippi instead,” said one traveler.

Another said, “Speed traps cost small towns more tourist dollars than the proceeds of the tickets. Who would want to invest there when it discourages people to go there?”

Jeff Davis already has a bad reputation when it comes to travelers on I-10. Rarely do motorists drive through the parish without seeing sheriff’s deputies on both sides of the interstate using radar guns to catch speeders.

In the case of Welsh, even some town officials are skeptical of using police to enforce traffic and drug laws on interstate highways. One alderman said a lot of people in his town aren’t happy about police officers working the interstate.

Police in cities and town along the interstate highways have enough to do enforcing laws within their limits. We saw what happened in Welsh when that situation got out of hand and State Police and sheriff’s deputies had to step in to preserve law and order.

Excessive speeding should be rigidly controlled, but State Police have the manpower and the major responsibility when it comes to patrolling interstate and state highways. The main purpose of strict enforcement of traffic laws is to protect the public safety, not to raise revenues for parish, city and town budgets.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].

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