- The Washington Times - Monday, February 8, 2016

Ferguson City Council members are set to vote Tuesday on an agreement with the Justice Department to overhaul the police and court systems — a plan that threatens to absorb one-fourth of the Missouri city’s budget and to overwhelm even its ability to raise taxes.

The latest figures provided by city officials put the costs associated with the Justice Department’s consent decree as high as $3.7 million in the first year for a city with an operating budget of $14.5 million and a budget deficit of $2.8 million this fiscal year.

In addition, the consent decree cripples what had been a principal source of revenue and a major cause of racial tension — such as fines for minor traffic offenses — while the city’s notoriety and 2014 riots have damaged its ability to attract a taxable base that could generate money.

“We’re going to have to come up with a plan for how we can afford those costs. Whether that’s through taxes or whether that’s through some sort of service cuts, there will have to be a plan that we can adopt in order to make this consent decree feasible,” Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III told reporters at a meeting Feb. 2. “There’s no use in signing a consent decree that you can’t live up to.”

At a public forum Saturday on the consent decree, resident Bill Tucker was more pointed, according to the International Business Times: “Who is going to implement this decree when the city of Ferguson ceases to exist?”

The agreement is the product of months of negotiations between city leaders and federal officials after the Justice Department authored a scathing report on the city’s judicial system in the wake of the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

Officer Wilson was not charged in Brown’s death, but the Justice Department pinpointed racial inequities within the Ferguson Police Department and accused it of a pattern and practice of violating the constitutional rights of its residents, especially blacks.

Two tax increases — an economic development sales tax and a property tax increase — are already set for votes in April. But they would generate only about $1.4 million to go toward the cost of this fiscal year’s budget deficit and not the cost of implementing the consent decree.

“The city is going to explore all avenues if and when this proposal would be passed, such as grants, any volunteer help that could be incorporated,” city spokesman Jeff Small said about efforts to cover the cost of the consent decree.

Under the tentative Justice Department agreement, which was publicly released in late January, officials would overhaul the policies and practices of the Ferguson Police Department and the municipal court system.

Changes would include training to help Ferguson law enforcement officials recognize unconscious racial stereotyping; deployment of body-worn cameras to all patrol officers, supervisors and jail workers; more stringent accounting of police use-of-force incidents; limitations of court fines and jail time for minor violations; and a plan to increase the diversity of the police force.

A large portion of the estimated costs to meet the agreement consists of salary increases for officers to make the Ferguson Police Department among the most competitive of similar-size agencies in St. Louis County.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that leaders of the city of 21,000 anticipate that employees in non-police roles also will expect raises and have included those costs in the estimates.

“Every other employee in the city will also be looking for a pay increase,” Ferguson’s finance director, Jeffrey Blume, said during the forum Saturday. “If that were to come to pass, that would be approximately $1 million.”

After the initial year of the agreement, city estimates put the annual costs of sustaining the reforms at $1.8 million to $3 million.

The Post-Dispatch reported that some residents said the decree is a matter of justice, not cost.

“I don’t care what it costs,” Winfred Cochrell said. “If my taxes go up, they go up. I don’t care. I want to be able to leave my house in the morning and come home at night.”

If Ferguson leaders do not approve the consent decree, the Justice Department is likely to bring a civil rights lawsuit against the city, which could incur significant legal costs.

The Justice Department has emphasized that either way, the city will be held accountable regardless of costs.

“As has long been established under law, constitutional protection cannot be denied on the grounds of cost,” Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta wrote in a letter to Ferguson officials in January. “With this in mind, the negotiating team and the Department of Justice have worked to ensure that police and court reform would be accomplished in a timely, meaningful, and cost-effective way.”

On Monday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch told The Associated Press that she hopes the Justice Department would be able to avoid a court battle over the consent decree.

“We think that the agreement that’s been presented to the city of Ferguson is comprehensive, it’s thorough, it’s fair and it effectively addresses the problems that we outlined so many months ago,” Ms. Lynch said. “We hope that they will vote on it expeditiously and that we can move forward and avoid litigation.”

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