The first function of any local government is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens. Since I have become mayor, the greatest concerns that citizens have expressed to me have been those relating to traffic violations. In particular, these have included speeding, reckless driving and especially failure to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks.
The economic vitality and growth currently under way in Elkins creates a need for increased caution and stricter observance of traffic regulations. To address the need for greater resources to deal with these challenges, the current budget planning process for the coming fiscal year has included bringing the police force up to a full complement of 12 officers in addition to two special officers. This expansion will put the police force at the level it was in previous decades. One of the purposes of this is to provide for more stringent enforcement of the traffic regulations which are in place.
In the long run, this transition to enhanced traffic enforcement will help to make Elkins a much more desirable place to live. Ensuring that pedestrians can with reasonable precaution cross the street safely is essential to maintaining the quality of life to which we are all entitled.
Paying for this expansion in the short run is a challenge with which we as a city have to deal. Some suggestions that were put forward to fund the expansion included adding a public safety fee to the utility bill to support police services. Many other West Virginia cities have such a fee in place.
My own feeling about this, however, is that law-abiding citizens should not be taxed or penalized to deal with what a few people who think they are above the law are doing. We are responsible for our own actions, and if we cannot, for whatever reason, live within the normal parameters of civilized society, we should not expect our fellow citizens to pay for it. Accordingly, I am recommending to City Council that those who opt to disrespect the law should bear the burden of expense in dealing with such violations.
The West Virginia Legislature sets minimum and maximum fines which municipalities may charge for traffic violations. Fines in Elkins have been incredibly low with most of them set at the absolute minimum authorized by the state Legislature. For example, the fine for hazardous driving, which endangers the lives of other people, is only $65. I am recommending to council that this be raised to $300.
Perhaps the most egregious violation of all is the fine for passing a school bus. Our children are our most precious asset and should be protected as much as possible. The current fine for illegally passing a school bus is only $50. I am requesting council to raise it to the maximum allowed by state law which is $200.
Raising fines, however, will do little to ensure the safety and well-being of our city in and of itself. Strict enforcement is absolutely essential, and this is being accomplished with the placing of additional police officers on the streets and with more committed enforcement efforts by the municipal court system. In the past, fines have often been disregarded or blinked away with little or no effort to collect. I applaud Chief Municipal Judge Thomas Pritt for initiating recovery procedures that are bringing the respect for law and order that our Constitution mandates.
Judge Pritt has developed a program to identify individuals who have failed to answer citations and is issuing capias warrants for their arrest. The process has already seen four recalcitrant repeat offenders landed in the Tygart Valley Regional Jail for failure to appear to answer their charges.
This action has had the desired effect of bringing in several other violators who have chosen to ignore the traffic laws by also choosing to ignore the citations imposed for their violations. Now rather than risk being committed to jail for failure to take responsibility, those who have been adrift from the law for long periods of time are beginning to voluntarily appear in court to take care of their arrears. One such violator who recently appeared at City Hall had in excess of $1,300 for tickets over the past few years, which have now been paid in full.
If our community is to be successful the laws must be enforced. If we as a local government do not do our part to ensure that enforcement is carried out, we cannot realistically expect anybody else to. Our destiny in this matter of law enforcement is in our own hands just as all the other challenges we face as a community are in our own hands. And, as in sports, if we set the bar higher we can expect a higher standard of performance.
Let's bring about that higher standard our citizens deserve.