Cover Story

Need for Speed

by Heather Miller

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The quaint little St. Landry Parish town of Washington, famed for its antique malls and antebellum charm, makes a killing with its interstate speed trap. By Heather Miller
Photos by Robin May

About 30 miles north of Lafayette and not far off Interstate 49 lies the historic St. Landry Parish town of Washington, a quiescent community of about 1,000 people known for its antiques, bucolic bed and breakfasts along the bayou - and speeding tickets.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The quaint little St. Landry Parish town of Washington, famed for its antique malls and antebellum charm, makes a killing with its interstate speed trap. By Heather Miller
Photos by Robin May

About 30 miles north of Lafayette and not far off Interstate 49 lies the historic St. Landry Parish town of Washington, a quiescent community of about 1,000 people known for its antiques, bucolic bed and breakfasts along the bayou - and speeding tickets.

It's no secret that if Washington is where you're headed, or if the interstate exit pointing the way to Washington stands between you and your destination, you'll more than likely spot a Washington police cruiser or two hawking the highway for speeders of any extent. More often, you'll observe an officer in action, or if you're like me, you'll be the sap sitting on the shoulder, anxiously awaiting your very own speeding fine.

But what's not so known is how this tiny town, which relies on speeding tickets to fund more than half of the town's budget, took extreme measures last year to ensure that drivers with a slightly heavy foot would forever be the ones footing the town's bill.

You see, Washington isn't the only Louisiana municipality to take advantage of high-speed highways. A 2007 report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office revealed that Washington is one of 15 municipalities in the state where speeding fines represent more than half the town's revenue.

State lawmakers requested this study in 2006 to see "the extent to which speed limits and their enforcement in municipalities are based more on revenue generation rather than public safety." In their request, lawmakers opined that even the Louisiana Travel Promotion Association included in its Louisiana Tour Guide a list of locales widely recognized for their speed trap status.

Although the report cited a lack of cooperation from the 39 towns surveyed and conflicting data from other state agencies that track speeding convictions, it did identify Washington as a town that receives 50.84 percent of its revenue from speeding tickets. Washington Mayor Joseph Pitre was even more specific on that statistic in July 2009 when he told The Advocate his town generates between $700,000 and $800,000 a year in revenue from speeding tickets.
C'est what? Holy cash cow.

The auditor's findings further explain that for the 2006 fiscal year, "80 percent of the municipalities were able to provide us the total number of traffic tickets issued, but only 40 percent were able to provide us the number of convictions." Perhaps the discrepancy in reporting stems from the popular practice of towns collecting the full speeding fine, then altering the infraction to a lesser "non moving violation." That's another fact found, in part, through personal experience (more on that below).

The 83 disturbing pages of speed trap stats prompted state Rep. Hollis Downs, R-Ruston, to try twice at introducing legislation targeting said speed traps. The first attempt in 2008 died in committee, but a similar bill by Downs passed in 2009 and was subsequently signed into law. Under the new statute, money collected for violations of 10 mph or less above the posted speed limit must be redirected to the state. The law, however, only applies to towns that govern without a Home Rule Charter and only pertains to tickets issued along interstates.

Mayor Pitre was, to say the least, livid about the measure that would effectively rip his town's budget in half. Pitre was quoted in The Advocate as saying, "I'm not ashamed of anything we have done in the town of Washington," though he did not return almost a dozen of The Independent Weekly's calls made to Washington Town Hall, his office at Louisiana Technical College in Lafayette (where he also works) or his cell phone.

"It's probably not something he wants to discuss," says a clerk at Town Hall - especially since the state Department of Transportation and Development recently raised the speed limit along that section of I-49 to 75 mph.

And Washington Police Chief Ronelle "Bruce" Broussard refused to answer any questions about the police department or its role in padding the town's coffers. He referred "anything about what goes on on that interstate" to Town Hall.

According to The Advocate, shortly after the bill's passage, Pitre asked the state Attorney General's Office to look into the constitutionality of the new law. But in another sign of an uphill battle for what was a soon-to-be broke municipality, the AG's office didn't buy in to Pitre's claims.

Fast forward to more than a year later. Sunny skies, mellow music and our state's latest speed trap law in mind, I steer north for a weekend trip to visit a friend in Shreveport, set my cruise control to 75 mph (76 tops) and leave any concerns about I-49's speed patrol hot spots behind. Full disclosure: As a journalist and news junkie, I follow the Legislature closely. As a now reformed lead-foot driver, speed limit enforcement laws particularly grab my attention.
Yet as I descend the bridge crossing the Washington exit, there it is: a Washington Police unit with a police officer eager to flip the siren switch. And that's just what she does. My confusion only escalates when the officer informs me that she "clocked" me driving 77 mph. While speeding is speeding and 1 or 2 mph doesn't a big difference make, in my ongoing effort to slow it down, I strive to push it to no more than 5 or 6 mph above the speed limit while on the interstate - and try not to speed while driving in town.

"But ma'am, I mean officer, I mean, um, I, I ... I don't understand," I babble, immediately calculating an increase in car insurance despite what I thought was protection through the new state law. "Don't you guys give a little cushion? And don't you guys not even get the money anymore?"

The officer isn't sympathetic enough to let me off with a mere warning, but she does offer a wink and whisper that if I call Town Hall and pay the fine before the court date, the ticket will be "off the [driving] record."

While I appreciate the gesture, I'm still dissatisfied with the encounter. I pull off at the nearest exit to research online articles I remembered reading when the bill came into play. My memory is correct. The law is still there. What were Washington officials thinking? How could they so blatantly violate an attempt to curb this exact behavior?

Turns out, they didn't. When I call Town Hall to question the fine amount and whether I should even pay it given the trove of information I had gathered in my favor, the woman on the other end of the call educates me even more on the subject. In November 2010, she says, the town of Washington held an election, and voters approved a switch from a Lawrason Act form of government to its very own Home Rule Charter. Again, the state law only applies to towns without a Home Rule Charter.

Side note: The Lawrason Act is one of a few forms of municipal governments allowed under Louisiana law. It's the preferred form for more than 75 percent of municipalities in the state, according to a report prepared for the Louisiana Municipal Association. Although any city, town or village can adopt a Home Rule Charter, charters are typically seen in larger communities. According to information compiled from LMA's website, Washington is by far the smallest community in Acadiana to have a Home Rule Charter. The second smallest town in Acadiana with a home rule charter is Berwick in St. Mary Parish, which has a population almost five times greater than Washington.

There you have it folks. They got me. A whopping 439 voters turned out in November to decide the fate of myself and so many other drivers, and 55.3 percent of them voted against us and in favor of saving their town's coffers. I'm not bitter - just poorer, $167 poorer to be precise.

But I'm not the only one who may end up poorer in this deal. The town's 2009-2010 audit released recently says Washington officials decided to exempt themselves from the new state law before they held the election - and collected just more than $200,500 in speeding fines without turning them over to the state. Mayor Pitre responded to the allegations with a letter stating that the legislation is unfair and targets only his town, also asking the state to "immediately" forgive the debt. The audit findings were not resolved by press time, and it remains unclear whether Washington plans to repay the money.

The Independent Weekly decided to examine, for kicks, just what exactly $800,000 a year will buy for a town of 1,000 people.

Town officials claim they have nothing to hide, but finding out the size of the town's police department proved more difficult than a typical reporter's probe. When the police chief shooed me out of his office and back to Town Hall - where my search for information had begun - I put a few questions forth in a formal, handwritten public records request, at which time I was reminded via written response that the municipality had 72 hours to fulfill it.
Of course. Questions as complicated as, "How many police officers are employed?" warrant days of research.

Friday afternoon, I received the answers I was seeking. For the record, the department has five full-time officers, one part-time officer, eight police cars and 13 total employees.

I was also told on Wednesday that the budget was "in use" and I would be able to view it within three working days.

After a brief and favorable discussion with town attorney Chad Pitre late Wednesday, I returned Thursday to review the town's 2010-2011 budget, which shows an anticipated $900,000 in annual income from court fines, by far the largest line item contributing to the overall $1.9 million in revenue. That would make this year's speeding fines only 47.3 percent of the town's revenue, but not far off from the auditor's projections a few years ago. The budget lists $583,000 in total expenditures for the police department, hundreds of thousands less than the money collected from the tickets officers so dutifully spend their time writing.

But, hey, without the extra dough, how would the town be able to fund its Catfish Festival every year and appropriate thousands of dollars for a beer booth?

Come to think of it, that's a cause I'd be willing to contribute to again. Heck, I might even head out to the Catfish Festival next time it rolls around. But I'll be sure and ask a friend to drive.