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Paynesville Press - December 24, 2003

City will keep using administrative fine system

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

The city of Paynesville plans to continue to use its administrative fine system despite a recent opinion from the attorney general's office that says cities cannot set separate fines for state-regulated offenses like speeding.

According to the opinion from the attorney general's office, cities cannot override state law and collect their own fines for violations of the state statute.

However, this ruling is not binding, according to city attorney Bill Spooner.

"Nobody's put their foot down yet," agreed police chief Kent Kortlever, who introduced the use of administrative fines in Paynesville. Kortlever thought the program would be good for Paynesville because fine amounts for minor citations would be lower, the tickets would not go on the offender's driving record, and the fines would go into the city's general fund instead of being divided between the city and the state.

Paynesville police officers will continue to issue the local citations, until the Minnesota Legislature rules that the practice is illegal.

The city of Paynesville agreed to implement an administrative fine system in August, including fines for things like speeding, failing to stop at a stop sign, failing to license a dog or cat, allowing a dog or cat to run at large, urinating in public, parking tickets, failing to cut lawn grass, failing to shovel the sidewalk, and violating a sprinkling ban.

The city fines for these, under the administrative fine system, is less than the state fine. For instance, for speeding, the city charges $65 while the new state fine is $103. Lowering these fines is one reason that Kortlever proposed using this system in Paynesville. Other administrative fines include $75 for unreasonable acceleration, $50 for drinking on the street or in a city park, $25 for failing to remove snow from a sidewalk, and $10 for a parking ticket (first offense).

The attorney general's opinion affects only those offenses specifically covered by state law, such as speeding and failing to stop at a stop sign. Others offenses - such as public urination and juvenile smoking - are not immediately clear if they are covered by state law or not, said Spooner. Still other offenses - such as parking tickets, pet issues, and public works items - clearly are covered by the city ordinance and should continue.

So far, though, over two-thirds of the administrative fines collected by the Paynesville Police Department have been either for speeding or failing to stop at a stop sign. In the 16 weeks since the police started issuing administrative fines in the city, since the start of September, police have issued 35 speeding citations and 12 stop sign citations. All other citations number 23.

In 16 weeks, police have collected over $3,000 in administrative fines. Since the program began, most people have been receptive to it, said Kortlever. There have been no hearings requested, and those that have been issued the tickets are grateful because they know they've been given a break, he said.

Paynesville police officers like the program too, Kortlever added. He estimates that under the old system, officers would have only issued half as many speeding and stop sign tickets because they were so expensive. Instead of issuing tickets, they would have issued warnings.

Paynesville was one of many municipalities that adopted an administrative fine program this year. This has brought the issue to the attention of state officials.

Neither Kortlever nor Spooner was surprised by the opinion from the attorney's general office. In fact, earlier this fall, after the state auditor issued an opinion that cities were using administrative fines illegally, Spooner suggested to the city council that Paynesville wait to implement its program, but the Paynesville Police Department had already started using administrative fines, so the decision was made to continue.

Kortlever also approached Paynesville Township about implementing the administrative fine system, but the township board decided not to do it because of the opinions and the prospect that the Minnesota Legislature would act to end it.

While he has heard rumors about what action the legislature may take, Spooner did not want to venture a guess about what may be done about administrative fines.

Until something is done by the legislature, the Paynesville Police Department will continue to use them in the city of Paynesville.

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