You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Barstow voters passed a public safety tax hike. Then parking tickets skyrocketed

Victorville Daily Press logo Victorville Daily Press 2/28/2022 Charlie McGee, Victorville Daily Press

Parking tickets skyrocketed, arrests plummeted, and the law-enforcement payroll hit new heights in Barstow as the police force tapped into millions of new dollars from a tax-hike that local consumers and retailers began paying in 2019.

Barstow Police Department issued a combined total of 1,689 parking citations in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, far more than double its prior two-year total of 707 citations, according to the city’s recent financial report for fiscal 2021 — which spanned not the regular calendar year but July 1, 2020-June 30, 2021, as is standard for fiscal schedules.

At the same time, the number of arrests logged by BPD fell to an all-time low in line with a trend of booking fewer people that has continued since 2014, according to the annual report. The agency logged 2,235 arrests in fiscal 2020, a 7.3% decline from the prior year and just under 2,200 arrests this past fiscal year.

The Barstow Police payroll also jumped to its highest level on record in the last two fiscal years. BPD had 66 full-time employees as of June 30, 2020, an addition of 10 people from the prior year, and maintained that level of employment last year even as other city agencies cut down on staffing.

The parking-ticket surge and police payroll growth correlate directly with a new 1% tax on sales and purchases of retail goods in Barstow.

The city imposed this tax after a successful 2018 ballot referendum known as Measure Q, pitched in a City Council resolution that year as being “needed to ensure the City keeps its local fire department and that we have enough police, firefighters, and paramedics to respond quickly to keep our community safe.”

The shifts in local policing stats also coincided with the emergence of COVID-19, government-enforced business shutdowns, local budget-tightening, and new pressure on day-to-day officers nationwide stemming from Black Lives Matter protests. 

A parking-ticket pandemic?

Barstow Police issued an annual average of just 371.5 parking citations in the eight years spanning fiscal 2012-2019. The highest one-year total came in fiscal 2015 at 522 citations that time.

Then, the agency issued 1,110 parking citations in fiscal 2020 alone.

That marked the highest single-year count on-record dating back to 2005 and nearly quadrupled the 299 parking citations BPD reported a year prior.

The agency issued another 579 parking citations this past fiscal year, the highest non-2020 total since BPD reported 666 citations in fiscal 2010.

As parking tickets surged, arrests went in the opposite direction.

Barstow Police logged a combined total of 4,433 arrests in the last two fiscal years, a 9% decline from its two-year total in fiscal 2018-19. The disclosures show that the arrests reported by BPD have fallen each year since fiscal 2015, with an average annual decrease of 4.1%.

According to BPD Captain Chris Kirby, it’s tough to attribute one source to these phenomena.

Causes of the parking-ticket surge “could be the addition of the parking enforcement officer,” Kirby said in an email, referencing a former code enforcement official in Adelanto and Barstow, Walter Jue.

Jue, in mid-2019, became one of the first people Barstow hired using funds from the massive influx of sales-tax revenue created by Measure Q. His hiring came from more than a need to crack down on parking, though: Jue became the city’s arson investigator and fire inspector as a Barstow Fire employee, two jobs he still holds today alongside his employment as a non-sworn officer of BPD.

Parking citations may also have risen with “the implementation of geographic responsibilities (assigned beats) and the strong community policing philosophy the department has recently embraced,” Kirby wrote.

As for annual arrests declining by more than 200 bookings in the past two fiscal years, Kirby says COVID-19 had a significant impact in Barstow.

“The police department was not immune to this,” he wrote. “We had employees out sick, and some of the practices for processing a violation of law were temporarily adjusted. For example, an arrestee might have been cited in the field for a low-level crime to avoid prolonged contacts during times when the COVID numbers were elevated.”

It remains unclear where parking tickets are most prevalent within Barstow and what kind of infraction is most often cited against people.

Kirby said Barstow doesn’t currently have any parking meters, eliminating that as a potential factor in the citation surge. He also said that “residential streets don’t have specific parking stalls designated for handicapped drivers” in Barstow.

“Therefore, BPD does not issue citations for being parked in an accessible stall on a residential street.”

Beyond eliminating those potential causes, though, Kirby said only that “the violations/citations vary from month to month.”

Murky revenue streams

It’s impossible to know how lucrative these tickets are by looking at Barstow’s public financials alone. Not all parking tickets carry the same price tag. Not all disclosures offer the same financial details, and not all money generated by Barstow Police’s citations goes to the government of Barstow.

BPD collects revenue from parking citations but shares some of it “with the city and other government entities,” Kirby said, though he didn’t specify how those shares are split up or who outside of Barstow gets a slice of the winnings.

City Manager Willie Hopkins and interim Finance Director Marc Puckett didn’t respond to emails requesting Barstow’s annual revenue from parking citations alone between fiscal 2018-2021 and asking how the city allocates this money and accounts for it in financial statements.

But the public can get a decent understanding of how parking tickets paid off on the city’s end in at least a few recent years.

In its last three annual budgets, Barstow added “vehicle code fines” to the revenue-by-category list for its General Fund – separate from a category for “other fines,” contrary to prior budgets that mixed these two revenue streams in one “fines and forfeitures” category.

Presumably, every dollar Barstow gets from “vehicle code fines” — or at least the vast majority of them — is a result of parking citations, given that BPD discloses no other form of traffic enforcement each year.

The data in this context shows that Barstow Police collected:

  • About $97,568 from 286 citations ($341 per ticket) in fiscal 2016
  • About $142,295 from 501 citations ($284 per ticket) in fiscal 2017
  • About $59,192 from 408 citations ($145 per ticket) in fiscal 2018
  • About $56,500 from 299 citations ($190 per ticket) in fiscal 2019

If the cost per parking ticket stayed anywhere in the range of these years, Barstow’s government would have made $245,000 and $577,000 from parking tickets alone in fiscal 2020 and 2021. Using both the mean and median cost, the city’s winnings would have been about $400,000 from just parking tickets.

Show me the money

Yet, Barstow’s financial reports for the past two fiscal years — the first released in late February last year, the second released earlier this month — disclose far less revenue for all “fines and forfeitures” than the city would expect to gain in any prior year from parking tickets alone.

For example, Barstow disclosed about $133,000 of revenue for all fines and forfeitures it collected in fiscal 2020. That means the city reported a notably lower dollar figure for parking tickets alone, likely closer to $100,000 of revenue across all citations.

This is an anomaly because the 1,110 parking citations issued by BPD in fiscal 2020 surpassed any other ticket total in a prior year on record.

Barstow Police issued less than half the parking tickets in fiscal 2017, but it collected more than $142,000 from those citations alone and $216,000 when adding in all other fines and forfeitures.

The only other year that comes close to the 2020 ticket record is fiscal 2006 — when BPD logged a total of 1,039 parking citations — and while the city didn’t disclose its parking-specific revenue at the time, it did report $214,193 in revenue from all fines and forfeitures.

The fiscal 2021 disclosure is also an outlier: Less than $90,000 of revenue reported from all fines and forfeitures in the year when the police issued 579 parking citations. When BPD issued just 286 parking citations in 2016, by comparison, it disclosed more than $97,000 of revenue from those tickets alone and $140,000 for all fines and forfeitures.

In other words, Barstow dished out a historically heavy rate of parking tickets in the first two years of COVID but recorded a historically low amount of money collected from those subject to the tickets.

Regardless, the price of a parking ticket varies wildly based on the violation in question. Barstow’s Master Fee Schedule lists hundreds of rates for various services and unruly behavior mostly set as one concrete dollar figure.

Parking tickets, though, are priced on California’s uniform bail schedule: More than 600 pages of standard charges, which slap a minimum of $42.50 on parking infractions that can go well above $1,000 for acts like illegal handicap parking — or spike for less conventional reasons, like a $200 penalty “for Parking (or) Standing in Space for Charging Electric Vehicle While not Connected for Charging.”

California law entitles anyone to contest a parking citation in court so long as they don’t wait too long to act. This entitlement isn’t free, though: A fact-sheet on Barstow’s website says if one reaches the point of appealing their ticket, a $25 filing fee must be paid to Barstow Superior Court.

This is at least one avenue by which BPD parking tickets yield cash for agents outside Barstow. When asked how much revenue San Bernardino County collected from city-level parking tickets in the last four fiscal years, an Auditor-Controller spokeswoman told the Daily Press that the county would need a public-records request to be filed and processed correctly figure out those numbers.

A bigger slice of the pie

Overall spending in Barstow's government's “public safety” segment — police and fire — surged to its all-time highs in the last two fiscal years.

Public-safety expenses increased by 26% in fiscal 2020, to $23.9 million. That represents 49% of all money spent by Barstow’s government during the year. The public-safety expense dipped slightly to $22.3 million last fiscal year but still held by far the largest share in total government spending.

The disclosures don’t identify the split in public-safety spending between police and fire, but the huge totals are likely due to both agencies enhancing their staffing.

No matter how these financials account for parking-ticket money, the funding boost is likely small relative to another lucrative revenue stream the police and fire agencies have tapped in recent years.

Barstow Police issued a combined total of 1,689 parking citations in fiscal-years 2020 and 2021, far more than double its prior two-year total. © Liz Dufour/The Enquirer Barstow Police issued a combined total of 1,689 parking citations in fiscal-years 2020 and 2021, far more than double its prior two-year total.

Measure Q

The tax-hike imposed by Measure Q on sales by retailers and purchases by consumers won in a tighter-than-expected 59% to 41% split on the November 2018 ballot.

The ballot measure asked voters if they were a “yes” or “no” on a new 1% tax “paid by visitors and residents” to create $7 million annually in “funding for 911 emergency response times, fire protection/paramedic services, police services; neighborhood patrols; gang, drug, and crime prevention, maintaining streets, parks, senior/youth programs.”

Barstow agencies gained access to Measure Q money at the start of fiscal-year 2020 or in July 2019.

The city has brought in far more money from the new tax than it predicted on the 2018 ballot: A total of $18.4 million raised from Measure Q taxpayers between 2019 and June 30 last year, with $8.9 million of that raised previous fiscal year as local sales improved from the jolt of COVID and business restrictions.

But a surplus of $6.3 million reportedly sat in the Measure Q fund balance as of June 30 last year.

That’s because Barstow agencies used only about two-thirds of the money raised through the new local tax in their first two fiscal years accessing the funds, with a total of $12.1 million spent under the purview of a resident oversight commission and mandatory audits.

Barstow Fire Protection District made up $6.4 million of those expenditures, adding eight sworn employees and one non-sworn employees to its payroll and buying or leasing equipment, including a new fire engine, city records show.

Barstow Police logged the second-highest expenditures, reporting $3.4 million of Measure Q funds spent in fiscal years 2020 and 2021.

Much of that covered salaries and benefits for eight sworn and two non-sworn employees hired since the tax-hike took effect, bringing BPD to its highest staffing level on record at 46 sworn officers and 20 non-sworn workers as of last June.

Other expenses of Measure Q money by the police in recent years include:

  • New and upgraded police-tech including roughly $385,000 for “Mobile Data Computer systems, radios, and in-dash cameras” in BPD’s patrol fleet, $250,000 for automatic license-plate readers, $70,000 for a “Laser Crime Scene Processor,” $65,000 for a new body-worn camera system and $50,000 for encrypted radios
  • Combat-focused gear including roughly $15,000 for new Tasers from Axon Enterprises Inc., $12,000 for live ammo in the firearms of BPD’s eight Measure Q-funded officers, and $11,500 for ballistic helmets and vests

Cuts demonstrate the significance of Measure Q to staffing in other parts of Barstow’s government.

The Parks and Recreation Division shed all but a few of its workers in recent years, for example, dropping from 17 employees in fiscal 2019 to just 2.5 employees at the close of last fiscal year — a 0.5 presumably equals one part-time employee.

Measure Q originated from rising concerns among city officials about debt- and pension pressures on the Barstow Fire Protection District. It won on the ballot because of that and a separate rise in frustrations over what many locals perceive as a worsening presence of violent crime, decaying infrastructure, and homeless people coming to Barstow from within and beyond the High Desert.

Barstow Police Department issued a combined total of 1,689 parking citations in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, far more than double its prior two-year total of 707 citations, according to the city’s recent financial report for fiscal 2021. © Glenn Osmundson, The Providence Journal Barstow Police Department issued a combined total of 1,689 parking citations in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, far more than double its prior two-year total of 707 citations, according to the city’s recent financial report for fiscal 2021.

Problems persist

The worries that led residents to approve Measure Q have persisted through the decline in arrests and little-noticed spike in parking tickets of the past two fiscal years.

San Bernardino County’s annual count of homeless people — which it canceled in 2021 citing coronavirus concerns — identified 108 homeless people in the Barstow area as of January 2020, a remarkable 74% rise from the count a year prior.

(The 2022 iteration of this count will be held Thursday, Feb. 24, and remains open for registration on the county’s website)

A significant rise in building fires took hold in Barstow for the past two years as well. BFPD previously told the Daily Press it responded to 79 structure fires in the first half of 2021, nearly five times its total in 2019.

With that, spats of violence like a fatal shooting and critical stabbing that took place within a few hours of each other one evening last October strike many longtime residents as increasingly common in Barstow.

A new leader officially took the helm at Barstow Police Department earlier this month: Chief Andrew Espinoza Jr., who first took over the role on an interim basis in October following the retirement of former longtime Chief Albert Ramirez.

Before calling it a career late last year, Ramirez held what may have been the most powerful mix of roles in Barstow. Aside from being police chief, he took over the role of assistant city manager for much of 2021 soon after the inauguration of Mayor Paul Courtney, Councilwoman Barbara Rose, and Councilwoman Marilyn Dyer-Kruse.

The recent ascent of Espinoza to the department’s top spot could signify a new approach to policing in Barstow. Last year, he spoke at a committee meeting about BPD’s efforts to address homelessness by focusing less on arrests and more on facilitating rehabilitation in tandem with other city agencies.

During its few months under Espinoza’s interim leadership, the department also faced controversy, though, including a scuffle between Barstow officers and local wedding party attendants last month, which one witness captured on tape that T.M.Z first reported.

A Barstow man and fellow civilians involved in the chaotic scene have since filed suit against the city, seeking more than $2 million and alleging they were injured from excessive force by police.

Charlie McGee covers California’s High Desert for the Daily Press, focusing on the city of Barstow and its surrounding communities. He is also a Report for America corps member with the GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and around the world. McGee may be reached at 760-955-5341 or cmcgee@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.

This article originally appeared on Victorville Daily Press: Barstow voters passed a public safety tax hike. Then parking tickets skyrocketed

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Victorville Daily Press

Victorville Daily Press
Victorville Daily Press
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon