- Posted May 26, 2011 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The Biggest Little Speed Trap in Texas
ESTELLINE — With his lean profile and weathered face, Estelline's Traffic Cop looks every bit the part of a West Texas lawman. Now and then, tourists stop and ask him to pose for snapshots in his mean-looking Dodge Charger squad car.
Most of the time, though, Estelline's finest is the one making the introductions along U.S. 287 as it runs, briefly, through Estelline and its single blinking yellow light.
"People know me from Los Angeles to New York," The Officer says, a slight grin forming.
Estelline has a one man police force whose main purpose is to fill city coffers. The Officer writes about 20 tickets a day to drivers who fail to slow as the wide, flat four-lane leaves the Panhandle's red-dirt cotton fields and enters this farm town of 168 residents about a hundred miles southeast of Amarillo.
Despite a 1975 Texas law aimed at curbing speed traps, Estelline has been able to mine nearly its entire budget from motorists who fail to slow from 70 mph to 50 mph when they hit the city limits.
"We follow the state law," said Estelline Mayor Rick Manley, whose current budget anticipates it will take in $320,000 in traffic fines this year. The town keeps some of the money but by law will have to give a chunk to the state.
Paying back the state Texas' speed-trap law uses an indirect approach to discourage small towns from relying too heavily on traffic tickets.
Under the law, which applies to towns of fewer than 5,000, nearly all traffic fines that exceed 30 percent of a city's previous year's total general revenues must be paid to the state. For instance, a town that takes in total revenues of $100,000 this year can keep only $30,000 in traffic fines next year, plus $1 for each ticket over the cap.
The law, which is enforced by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, prescribes no penalties — beside payment of money past due — for violations. And cities can grow their budgets each year by writing more tickets.
This year, Estelline will keep about $110,000 in highway fines, said the municipal judge who also at the time was working temporarily as city clerk.
"We're able to increase our revenue a bit every year," said Manley, a retired State Correctional Officer who moved to Estelline ten years ago.
At least five other small towns that aggressively ticket motorists appear to have learned how to live with Texas' speed-trap law as well.
Since 1999, Driscoll (south of Corpus Christi), Estelline, Martindale (east of San Marcos), Mount Enterprise (north of Nacogdoches), Payne Springs (southeast of Dallas) and Zavalla (east of Lufkin) have each voluntarily paid more than $10,000 to the state in excess fines, according to figures provided by the comptroller's office under the Texas Open Records Act.
People in Estelline, which ranks second behind Westlake in excess fines voluntarily sent to the state over the past nine years, do not deny the highway is the town's chief meal ticket.
"If we did not write tickets we would not have a City Hall, city employees, a police officer, a judge," said one City employee.
"Welcome to Estelline."
On a recent weekday, The Estelline Municipal Judge was in a small office adjacent to the Police Department working through a stack of mail sent from recently nabbed speeders. The town's two-room brick City Hall next door was damaged quite some time ago by a small tornado that demolished two 100-year-old buildings on the other side of the town square.
Estelline's only cafe closed last month and on a recent early-summer morning, the town looked all but deserted as a fierce High Plains wind blew in a legion of tumbleweeds and dust that reddened the sky.
In its heyday in the 1890s, Estelline was a cattle-shipping center on the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway. It had 1,000 residents, two newspapers, a large general merchandise store, a lumberyard and a bank that operated for about 40 years until it failed in the Great Depression, according to a history compiled by the University of Texas at Austin.
Today, the only signs of commercial life in Estelline are two liquor stores that voters approved in 1983. One sells groceries, and between the two — the only sellers of alcohol in dry Hall County — they bring in about $15,000 in state sales tax a year, city budget
The town, which does not run it's own refuse collection, water or sewer utility, collects a total of $2,680 in property taxes and $3,000 in rental income from houses it has taken over.
"We're not getting rich here," said the judge. "We won't be retiring from this." It costs about $126,000 a year to run its one-man police force and city court, including the Peace officers $50,000 a year salary. "It's hard if you're a small town finding someone who will work like our Officer," said Manley, the mayor. "A lot of the guys will just sit around by the coffee pot. Our Officer will work six days a week."
Even at $170 to $280 per ticket (for exceeding the speed limit by 1 mph to 35 mph) it takes a lot of tickets to float even Estelline's modest budget. The state receives $71.50 for costs and fees on every ticket; drivers who opt to take a driving safety course pay no fine; and truckers who are ticketed often hire a lawyer and appeal to county courts, which keep any fines paid,
Local drivers such as Justin Garnica, owner of Gloria's Café in Memphis, the county seat, say they know to slow down in Estelline.
"He'll be parked behind City Hall, where the building confuses a radar detector, or there's a little dip he likes north of town," Garnica said. "Everybody around here knows to slow down over there. It's out-of-towners who get caught."
Fighting a reputation Larry Ivy, a ranch foreman who sits on the Estelline City Council, bristles at the suggestion that the town is a speed trap. The state sets the highway speed limit and it's clearly marked, he said. Vehicles blowing through town at 70 mph are a danger to residents, and the city has the right to slow them down, Ivy asserts.
At the same time, he said, without highway fines, the city would have no police force. "We're trying to fix our town up," Ivy said. "Without that money to mow and take down old buildings, we'd be like some of these other towns around here that have just gone away."
State officials audited Estelline in 1999 and 2003, finding in the earlier instance that the town owed the state $15,025 in excess traffic fines. Since 1999, state records show that eight towns have been audited by the state and were found to have underpaid under the speed-trap law.
One City Council Member speaking on condition of anonymity told me that an audit had recently been conducted which revealed a $600,000 discrepancy. I was told that the amount has now been reduced to a little under $250,000.
The most notorious is Kendleton, a town of 500 southwest of Houston that operated a speed trap on U.S. 59 for more than 20 years. In a series of audits, the comptroller's office found the town failed to pay more than $1.6 million in excess highway fines through the 1990s. Kendleton subsequently declared bankruptcy and disbanded its police force.
R.J. DeSilva, the comptroller's spokesman, said the state's speed-trap law is considered a success. "Compliance is high and the number of towns we're looking at is pretty small," he said. Were Estelline 25 miles to the northeast, on the other side of the Red River's Prairie Dog Town Fork in Oklahoma, it would face a more explicit speed-trap law. Since 2003, Oklahoma officials have had the power to stop local police departments from enforcing traffic laws on state and federal highways if the town derives more than 50 percent of its operating revenue from moving violations.
Late last year, Oklahoma officials designated three towns as official speed traps and shut down their highway operations for at least six months. One, Moffett, declared bankruptcy within six weeks. Estelline's detractors, who curse it on the Internet as a "Texas-sized speed trap" or worse, no doubt would like to see the town face a similar fate.
"What a long, strange and beautiful trip it was," wrote one, Sonny Stone of Ontario, Canada, musing about a cross-country drive. "The only serious problem was with a traffic cop in Estelline."
A big shout out to the following for contributing to this ireport:: Arencambre.com - Thenewspaper.com - Mysanantonio.com - Wikipedia - U.S. Census Bureau - Speedtrap.org
The author of this iReport was previously employed as a Municipal Peace Officer by the City of Estelline and resigned in good standing.
F-5 - Designation of Separation:
(Occupations Code 1701.452(b) (2))
TCLEOSE Agency Number: 191201