Shut down of Stone Mountain courts during COVID led to $600k revenue decrease

CAPTION: The Stone Mountain courthouse (Photo courtesy City of Stone Mountain)

Stone Mountain, GA — The shutdown of municipal courts due to the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a $600,000 decrease in general fund revenues, City Manager ChaQuias Miller-Thornton said.

Out of that number, $411,000 represented the loss of municipal fines and forfeiture funds from 2019 to 2020.

“We’ve attributed a large part of that to our court services being closed down for a long time, while we were still paying employees,” Miller-Thornton said. “The expenditures were there, but the revenue was not.”

To be clear, Stone Mountain’s finances are in good shape at the moment. During the Aug. 24 City Council meeting, the city’s auditor reported that, “The assets of the City of Stone Mountain exceeded its liabilities at December 31, 2020, by $12,499,639. Of this amount, unrestricted net position of $4,392,608 may be used to meet the government’s ongoing obligations to citizens and creditors.”

The city currently has $2,669,806 in reserves, the auditor said. The city’s current budget is about $5 million.

“From 2020 to 2021, we still have to account for … $484,000 left in those funds the city allocated toward COVID relief programs, so that money was assigned again in 2021, although the revenue was received in 2020,” Miller-Thornton said.

Tucker Observer asked Miller-Thornton whether she thought the city was over-reliant on fines and forfeitures.

“Our revenue portfolio, like a lot of small cities, we could stand to have a broader portfolio, but because of the streams of revenue available to us, based on our revenue, municipal fines and forfeitures are a considerable part of that budget,” she said.

But, she added, she doesn’t think the city is over-reliant on the fees

“I don’t think we are too reliant on municipal fines and fees,” she said. “Our police department has a responsibility to enforce both state and local code in the city. Only a portion of those fines and fees would be traffic related. They’re not all traffic related. I think anytime you do look at municipal fines and fees, you have to look at the fact the police department is doing its job.”

She said one source of revenue the city doesn’t have much of are hotel and motel taxes. The city receives none of the revenue from the hotel at Stone Mountain park.

“Our hotel motel tax on average is $11,000 a year, which is not enough to fund the two part-time salaries positions in our welcome center,” Miller-Thornton said.

Municipal Court Clerk Stephanie Capers said courts were able to reopen on June 3.

“We closed during the height of the pandemic, but then successfully reopened June 3 with social distancing and mitigation measures as warranted by the Centers for Disease Control, and Administrative Office of the Courts,” Capers said. “We continued to process fines and fees as they were received. We do not have a backlog of cases.”

Police Chief Chancey H. Troutman said officers continued enforcing the laws and writing citations during the time the city’s court was closed.

“We just used more precaution when dealing with the public, but we still had to enforce our ordinances when we were called out and if we observed an infraction,” Troutman said. ” … We did not stop responding to certain calls, we just used more precaution on all calls we responded to, and if we had to write a citation we would.  The volume of traffic citations and warning citations went down, because there were fewer people driving on the roads during the shut-down of the pandemic.”

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