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The Fee Trap: With pistol permit revenue falling, sheriffs and counties turn to other charges


The Fee Trap: With pistol permit revenue falling, sheriffs and counties turn to other charges

Sep 13, 2023 | 8:01 am ET
By Ralph Chapoco
The Fee Trap: With pistol permit revenue falling, sheriffs and counties turn to other charges
Willie Keith waits in line at the Talladega County motor vehicle registration office on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023 in Talladega, Ala. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

Few people renewing their vehicle registration fees in Talladega County on Aug. 31 knew the cost had gone up.

There’s a new $2 fee on car tags in the county, thanks to a law that passed the Legislature this spring.  It won’t fund a new program. It will offset the local sheriff’s financial losses from a steep drop in pistol permit fees, the result of a law passed by the Legislature last year.

“The fees are just ridiculous,” said Willie Keith, a Talladega County resident, who paid almost $170 to have his vehicle registered. “Every year, these people come up with some new fees, then when you ask about the fees they can’t explain the fees, then they got a whole bunch of rhetoric about the fees. And then, when you protest or say something about the fees, they want to gang up on you in the office.”

The Fee Trap

How fines, fees and charges cost Alabamians

Sept. 12: Alabama leans heavily on fees and charges, as well as fines and fees to fund government. But they fall hardest on those least able to pay, and often fall short of generating money to keep services going.

Sept. 13: When the state abolished concealed carry pistol fees, sheriffs found themselves without a major revenue source. To make up for the loss, many other charges went up.

Sept. 14: Fees stack up on people in Alabama’s criminal justice system — even on people sent to diversion programs.

fines and fees in the criminal justice system, 13 gave sheriffs the authority to raise money in different ways, from fundraisers to mandatory fees.

Pistol permit fees were critical to many sheriff departments’ operations. But in making the permits optional, legislators cut a major source of funding to sheriffs’ departments.

“In the run-up to the regular session in 2023, many sheriffs went to their legislators, and to their county commissions, proposing measures to make up some of the lost revenue,” said Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama (ACCA). “That is where much of that came from.”

In many cases, that meant shifting the burden from people who owned firearms to car registrations, court costs and, in at least two cases, those incarcerated in local jails.

The most vulnerable Alabamians – low-income individuals and people in the criminal justice system – were often the most affected.

“Anytime that we develop new financial incentives for the courts to assess citizens, we must keep a close eye on the temptation to abuse that tool as a means of funding a bloated criminal legal system,” said Jerome Dees, Alabama state policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It’s not clear if the new fees will fully make up for the revenue losses. But criminal justice reform advocates are concerned about the impact the fees will have on the community, particularly how increasing the price for mandatory requirements can have a negative impact on the most vulnerable residents.

“In most cases that I have seen, those types of systems, fees and taxes to fund specific functions of government, disproportionately tend to fall on low-income folks,” said Mike Nicholson, a senior policy analyst with Alabama Arise.

Where the fees went

Sign on a door saying "Talladega County Commission Probate Office"
The Talladega County motor vehicle registration office is housed inside the courthouse on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023 in Talladega, Ala. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

The 13 sheriffs’ bills were concentrated in a handful of counties throughout Alabama.

  • Talladega County increased vehicle registration fees by $2 and authorized the sheriff’s department to use proceeds from the jail commissary to pay for operations. Previously, that money could only be allocated to the jail.
  • Limestone County authorized the sheriff to collect payment on five different fees that ranged from fingerprinting to serving papers for court.
  • Court document service fees and vehicle registration were the two most common fee-based methods for allocating money to the sheriffs’ departments. Of the 13 bills, 6 used one of those two exclusively for funding the sheriffs’ departments.
  • Two counties, Autauga and Winston, authorized sheriffs to host fundraising events.
  • Covington County increased the fee for buying pistol permits, even though the 2022 bill made that effectively optional.
  • In Morgan County, legislators passed a law allowing the sheriff to sell abandoned, stolen or unclaimed property, including vehicles.

Law enforcement agencies generally get support from the Legislature. But the loss of pistol permit fees was a blow. Montgomery County Sheriff Derrick Cunningham said he expects to lose $550,000 in pistol permit sales.

Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade projected an annual shortfall of $450,000 in June. Efforts to reach him for updated figures have been unsuccessful.

HB 272, the legislation that did away with most pistol permit requirements, tried to make up for the revenue loss by establishing a fund that, for a limited time, would offer grants to sheriffs’ departments to replace money they would have received had the pistol permits not been made optional.

But the replacement revenues only made up a fraction of the losses. Wade received $76,000 from the first two quarters of the year from the fund to offset the $450,000 his office had lost because of the bill. Cunningham was given $96,000 to make up for the $550,000 in losses.

That left sheriffs and counties with few good options.

“Anything that passes in the Legislature that reduces revenue means you either have to cut services, or you have to replenish the revenue,” Brasfield said.

Cutting the sheriffs’ office, the primary law enforcement agency in many rural areas, was a nonstarter. That left local officials to think of avenues for increasing revenues that their state legislators could support.

There were two prongs. The ACCA would work to get a bill passed in the legislature to secure additional funding from the state providing money to county sheriffs through grants. At the same time, individual sheriffs’ departments would request their local House and Senate members for some measure to secure additional funding on their behalf.

Not every sheriff got additional funding.

“I had a local bill,” Calhoun County's Wade said. “Talladega County, St. Clair County and Calhoun County all met, and all got together, and all decided to push a bill to replace this money for $2 per car tag in those three respective counties. Talladega County and St. Clair County’s bills passed. My representatives would not pass that bill for Calhoun County.”

Calhoun County Commissioner Lee Patterson said the additional fee would have generated $260,000, recovering roughly half of the money that was lost because of the change in the pistol permit law.

Messages were left with members of the state delegation from Calhoun County. Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, declined comment and said to reach out to the attorney that serves the county.

Cunningham said he didn’t even bring the issue to the attention of the state delegation representing Montgomery County.

“I didn’t ask for it because I didn’t want to do something local,” he said. “I thought I was going to do something statewide where everybody did it, instead of one agency doing this and this agency doing that. I was looking at doing something that everybody was going to implement.”

Rep. Phillip Ensler, D-Montgomery, said he would support the sheriff should he decide to submit a proposal for review by the local delegation, after criticizing some of his colleagues for changing the law and removing the pistol permit requirement in the first place.

“We wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place, having to figure out local levying for law enforcement, had Republicans not voted to defund law enforcement in the first place, had they not gone ahead and passed that bill that law enforcement so strongly came out against,” he said.

'That is better than nothing'

Two counties passed proposals that didn’t deal with fees at all, and instead authorized the sheriff to host fundraising events.

HB 485, sponsored by Rep. Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, allows the Winston County sheriff to host rodeos and fishing events to generate money that the sheriff can do with what he wishes.

"This bill allows a person to choose whether they will pay an entrance fee," Wadsworth said. "If they choose not to participate in the charitable event, then it does not cost a taxpayer anything. It’s all volunteer."

Proceeds from the events can be used at the discretion of the sheriff’s office, some of which, according to Wadsworth, will be retained by the department to be used for operations. But Wadsworth said much of the money will be donated to other organizations, including local fire and rescue.

SB 323, sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, allows the Autauga County sheriff to host fundraising rodeos and “use the proceeds and profits from the events for any lawful purpose relating to the operation of the office of sheriff.”

A man sits behind a desk, his hands folded.
Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, listens to a budget presentation from the Alabama Community College System on March 7, 2023. The presentation came on the first day of the Alabama Legislature's 2023 regular session. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

Autauga County Sheriff Mark Harrell, who came up with the idea, estimates his department will be short by 60% of the money the permit fees would have brought in had the law not changed.

“With the pistol permit fund that we get, the legislation cut that down,” Harrell said.

According to records from the Alabama Department of Economic Affairs, Autauga County received $13,250 in grants from the first quarter and $18,210 in the second quarter to help offset the losses from the pistol permit fees. That outlay, however, is not enough to make the department whole from the revenue it lost.

Harrell said that a rodeo, which could happen next year, would be a way to “give back to the community, (and) raise money for the sheriff’s office too.” But Harrell said he didn’t know how much money it would raise, and that it would be unlikely to make up the full loss.

“If it is $100 that we get, that is better than nothing," he said. "I could buy a $100 flashlight for the deputies or something for the deputies. I couldn’t tell you exactly how much I would like to raise or anything like that. It is just based on how well we do, or whatever idea we come up with. Anything is better than nothing.”

Wadsworth also said the local fundraisers would not make up for the full loss in Winston County.

“It is not a lot,” he said about the estimated revenue the events will generate. “But fire and rescue only get $11,500 a year from the legislature, so this money will help.”

Brasfield said the bills created new roles for public officials.

“Some might say what has happened is that through local legislation, public officials have now become fundraisers,” Brasfield said.

Vehicle registration and serving papers

Three counties, Marshall, Pickens and Shelby, all had bills that solely dealt with charging fees for serving or filing papers in court.

SB 327, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, allows the sheriff to charge $25 as part of a servicing process fee for each document the department serves. A second provision permits the sheriff to charge $25 for serving papers for an entity outside of Alabama arising out of any civil or criminal action.

HB 305, sponsored by Ron Bolton, R-Northport, establishes a $25 fee for every document that is processed by the sheriff’s department in Pickens County, with most of the money from the fee going to pay the sheriff’s office in Pickens County, with $5 going to the circuit clerk and the remainder of the funds left to the discretion of the sheriff.

Rep. Rob Bolton, R-Northport, in a bowtie.
Rep. Ron Bolton, R-Northport, in the chamber of the Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Stew Milne/Alabama Reflector)

“The sheriff used to work with me when I was in law enforcement, and I know him well, and he told me that it was to replace the pistol permit revenue,” Bolton said.

Bolton agreed to submit a bill on the sheriff’s behalf allowing him to charge the fee.

“That is a common practice in all sheriff’s departments,” Bolton said.

HB 444, sponsored by Rep. Corley Ellis, R-Columbiana, creates the Shelby County Sheriff's Civil Service of Process Fund and allows the sheriff to charge $50 for each document the office serves.

Another three counties, Cherokee, St. Clair and Talladega generated additional revenues solely from vehicle registration fees.

SB 259, sponsored by Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, adds $3.75 to the vehicle registration fee to fund the district attorneys and the sheriff’s department in Cherokee County. That pot will be split, with $1.50 going to the DA and the remaining amount deposited into the sheriff’s fund.

HB 148, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, allows the St. Clair County Sheriff’s department to charge $2 for each vehicle registration tag as part of the sheriff’s discretionary fund.

The effect on residents varies. Most counties establish a base fee of $25. But other fees and taxes are tacked on, depending on the make and model of the car they drive and the taxes that apply for where they live. For some, it could be as little as $68. For others, it could be as much as $200 or more.

“The difference with a vehicle fee I think that we see is that, just like everywhere in the world like Alabama, you need a car, you need to get around,” said Tim Curry, policy and research director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a nonprofit that advocates for the elimination of court fees. “And if they price that out for people, that is not going to stop people from driving, that is just going to criminalize their poverty.”

Money from cars, and inmates

A line to pay bills
Willie Keith, left, waits in line at the Talladega County motor vehicle registration office on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023 in Talladega, Ala. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

Talladega County Sheriff Jimmy Kilgore said the loss of pistol permit revenue cost his office about $280,000 annually, money that was used to pay for equipment and training. The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs gave the office a grant of $34,000 for the first two quarters of 2023, according to records obtained by the Reflector, a fraction of the amount they were getting each year from pistol permit sales.

It was a loss that Kilgore and his department could not absorb, so they thought of different ways to make up for the loss to continue funding their operations. One of the results was HB 312, sponsored by Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, which authorizes the Talladega County Revenue Commissioner to charge an additional $2 fee to register a vehicle each year.

“Rep. Wood approached me with that,” Kilgore said. “He came up with the idea, and we discussed it, and came up with the dollar amount that we wanted to do jointly. He introduced the bill, got it through the House.”

Messages seeking comment from Wood were not returned.

Since going into effect in July, Kilgore said the fee has netted the department $17,500. The sheriff’s office could earn about $210,000 from the increase. That replaces about 75% of the lost revenues, and combined with the grants from ADECA, could make the department close to whole again.

The remaining unknown is what happens when the funding from ADECA is eliminated in 2028, due to a sunset provision in the authorization bill.

For Kilgore, increasing the vehicle registration fee was a viable method to make up for the money he lost because of the pistol permit fee.

“I think that was the best option, I really do,” Kilgore said. “I hold an elected position, so I have to get out into the public and talk with people, and I have not met or discussed with one person who was opposed to that. When they heard what we were going to use the funding for, they heard about the lost revenue and the impact that it was going to have on their sheriff’s office, everybody was in agreement. They said, ‘we know you need money to operate, $2 is not going to break anybody.’”

As for its impact on lower-income people, Kilgore said the depreciation will take care of the cost in the future.

“The beauty of that is, annually your vehicle depreciates, and your tag costs less every year,” Kilgore said. “Basically, the $2 is absorbed in the depreciation. It is really just a way to fix the funding issue and it doesn’t impose a hardship on anybody.”

Lamar County managed to get one bill through the Legislature, but it allowed the sheriff to collect fees in three different ways. HB 474, sponsored by Rep. Tracy Estes, R-Winfield, allows the county to charge $50 for each document that the sheriff will serve to people as part of a court proceeding.

It also gives the county permission to charge municipalities $5 per day for each inmate housed within the jail as part of a fee to pay for the cost of feeding the inmates. Finally, it permits the commission to charge a fee to fingerprint individuals for non-law enforcement reasons, such as a passport or for employment.

Limestone County also had only one bill pass through the legislature this year, but it permits the county to charge an assortment of fees whose proceeds would go toward the county sheriff. HB 113, sponsored by Rep. Danny Crawford, R-Athens, allows for a $50 service processing fee for the sheriff’s office to serve papers. A second fee will charge $20 for a resident to request the sheriff to conduct a background check. And then a $60 fee to get fingerprinted for non-law enforcement purposes.

Danny Crwaford leaning over and speaking to someone.
Rep. Danny Crawford, R-Athens, speaks to a colleague during a session of the Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday, March 14, 2023. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

“It was necessary to provide the funds where they can keep patrols on, and then bring on people to do background checks and things, and then pay them from these fees,” Crawford said.

The fee amounts, Crawford added, is a set fee of the average cost of performing the service, allowing them to break even.

Crawford said the department needed the money because the area continues to grow and denied that the fees were needed because of losses stemming from pistol permit sales.

“We copied a bill that 12 or 15 other counties had done,” he said. “That is where we got the bill from.”

Sheriffs also got bills passed that will generate revenue from incarcerated people.

Prior to this year, proceeds from selling items in the Talladega County jail’s grocery store to inmates could only be used to maintain the jail or for jail operations. Kilgore successfully convinced state officials to amend that rule, allowing him to use the money for the general operations of the sheriff’s office.

Limestone County will also assess a $30 fee for any individual that is charged with a crime and incarcerated in the county jail upon conviction.

These fees are concerning for criminal justice reform advocates who have long criticized charging people who have been incarcerated.

“It is troubling to create a system where funding for law enforcement or court depends on how many people you have incarcerated,” said Leah Nelson, research director for Alabama Appleseed. “It creates some perverse incentives because the sheriff obviously has an interest in being funded, and if being funded depends on having people incarcerated, spending money at the commissary, then you really have some concerning conflicts of interest built into that funding mechanism.”

'You can do a lot more with $200'

A man leans on a column
Leroy Johnson talks outside the Talladega County motor vehicle registration office after registering his vehicle on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023 in Talladega, Ala. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

Reaction to the new fees varied among Talladega residents at the county courthouse. Some appeared fine with the fee and were happy to pay it, believing it was necessary to pay for a service that the county provided.

Others, already frustrated with paying their tags, noticed the fee afterward.

“They have been doing this forever, and I wondered where that money went,” said Leroy Johnson, who registered his vehicle at the end of the month.

Johnson paid nearly $150 for his vehicle tag.

“Today, I had to borrow this money to pay for this,” he said. “I mean I’ll have the money in the bank later today, but the fact is the late fee on this is probably $30 or $40. If I am late for tomorrow, I would have had to pay that extra money, and where would that money go.”

The consequences of breaking the rules was not lost on the people who went to pay their tag fees at the Talladega County Courthouse. Keith, for example, didn’t just have to pay his registration fee. He was also charged other fees because of complications related to insurance for his vehicle.

“They charged me a $200 fee because they were saying that I couldn’t prove that I had insurance,” Keith said. “They suspended my registration and charged me a $200 fee to reinstate my registration, just to be able to register again and give me a sticker for my vehicle.”

Adrien Kirksey, who paid almost $65 to get a tag for her vehicle, said the office should not get the fee.

“You are trying to help the people of the city, but a lot of people just don’t have the money,” she said. “They don’t have that extra $2 to spare. That is an extra $2 that I could use for something else.”

How we analyzed the bills

Analyzing the local government legislation that passed took weeks and began by reviewing the records the Alabama Reflector had compiled as bills moved through the legislature. Every week during the session, the Reflector published a summary of the legislation that both the House and Senate considered. The Reflector then used Alison, the state’s legislative website, to search for bills using different keywords related to taxation, fines, and fees.

Any legislation that collected any revenue or could be an additional expenditure was considered for review. Some dealt directly with generating revenues through local legislation through vehicle registration fees or dues related to filing documents with the court or serving papers.

Others were less direct and more distantly related, such as technical revisions that were made to a revenue source, or legislation with the potential for affecting expenses, such as increasing the number of days that the board of registrars meets, or consolidating voting centers to reduce cost.

Those bills were then compiled into a spreadsheet that outlined different features of the bills, from the bill number identifying the specific legislation and its sponsor, to the taxing authority and the agency receiving the funding. Specifics of the legislation were also included, such as the fee structure, its purpose and where the legislation ended during the legislative process.

At the end of the search, the Reflector aggregated almost 300 bills meeting those criteria. Of those, the Reflector focused on those that passed during the 2023 regular legislative session, and those bills that, in some fashion, affected the public by generating revenues or cost measures.

Legislation was then filtered even further, concentrating on those bills that generated fees at the state, county, or municipal level. In the end, the Reflector was left with more than 60 pieces of legislation to consider for its analysis.