Justice in Ferguson? Tax Hike Vote Could be the Key

Implementation of Ferguson’s settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice is at stake Tuesday as voters in the St. Louis suburb consider two tax hike proposals.

Mayor James Knowles III said last week that sales and property taxes must increase if Ferguson is going to pay for changes sought by the Justice Department, whose examination after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown uncovered significant racial bias in the Missouri town’s criminal justice system.

Brown was 18, black and unarmed when he was shot during a street confrontation with white officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014. A grand jury and the Justice Department cleared Wilson in the shooting that spurred the national Black Lives Matter movement.

The shooting also led to a Justice Department investigation of Ferguson police and court practices. A critical report in March 2015 prompted the resignations of the city manager, police chief and municipal judge. The City Council last month agreed to a settlement that calls for the hiring of a monitor; diversity training for police; purchase of software and hiring of staff to analyze records on arrests, use of force and other police matters; and outfitting all officers and jail workers with body cameras.

City leaders say measures associated with the agreement will cost Ferguson $2.3 million over three years, including $1 million in year one.

That’s a lot for a government already facing a $2.9 million deficit due largely to fallout from the shooting, such as sales tax declines, skyrocketing legal costs and the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in court fines and fees from reforms already in place.

One ballot measure would impose an economic development sales tax, the other a property tax increase that would cost about $76 annually for a home worth $100,000.

Passage of both still won’t get the city to the break-even point, Knowles said. The budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 calls for across-the-board pay cuts of 3 percent.

Knowles said if the tax measures fail, the city would likely lay off around a dozen members of the police force, six firefighters, and close one of the two fire stations.

If police jobs are cut, Knowles said it’s hard to imagine that the city could implement the type of community policing required by the Justice Department settlement. Money to pay for things such as software and hiring of police record analysts would also be hard to come by.

In a letter to Knowles and the City Council last month, Justice Department Civil Rights Division leader Vanita Gupta said “it is not uncommon for financial or staffing challenges to arise” when implementing Justice Department agreements.

“Provided those challenges are genuine, approached in good faith, and not pretexts for non-compliance, we are committed to working with jurisdictions to overcome those challenges,” she wrote.