PENAL FINES -- THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Edward Ellis, editor of Monroe's first newspaper, The Sentinel, was responsible for adding to Michigan's first constitution (1835) a provision that penal fines should be used to support libraries in every township in the state. This Monroe County heritage has benefited Monroe County as much or more than it has benefited any other part of Michigan, but it has also been a source of continual political battles as well.
In the 19th century, a few township libraries were established, as well as the Monroe City Library (1828), but all of them were limited in their resources and they were not found in all townships. At the turn of the century, the legislature made schools responsible for public libraries, and directed that penal fines be apportioned to the school districts. In those days there were over 140 school districts in Monroe County and they were the smallest units of government. Penal fines went to school "library funds" and could only be used for those purposes, but much of the money was unspent.
During Prohibition, fine revenues swelled to astonishing heights. In 1920 itself, over $190,000 in penal fines were collected in Monroe. Less than $18,000 of this actually made it into library funds.
In 1925, Lillian Stewart Navarre, J.S. Gray, new editor of Monroe's paper, and others first proposed establishing a county library. The Board of Supervisors was not receptive, and the idea did not get off the ground for almost a decade. Mrs. Navarre became State Librarian, and when CWA and FERA money became available in 1934, the Monroe County Library System was launched with Ruth Dancer as its first director. Federal money ceased and the library was shut down abruptly in the fall of that year.
A few months later, the Library was resurrected with WPA funding, and Mrs. Navarre returned to Monroe as its Director and only full-time employee. One of her accounts of the early years is attached to this report.
Mrs. Navarre had little use for the school libraries which offered the general public no service, and she enlisted the aid of Rep. Robert Sawyer and J.S. Gray to recover penal fines for public library support. Sawyer sponsored and passed legislation in 1939 that directed penal fines to the county library in Monroe.
The County Treasurer started transferring funds to the library fund, but the County Auditor, J. Emmett Kirby, objected to this and directed the Treasurer to get them back. After a legal confrontation, the auditor backed down and penal fines became a major source of library funding. When WPA money ceased with the onset of the War, penal fines became the soul source of library funding, with the exception of a small amount of state aid.
In 1941 a legislative attempt to redirect penal fines to school districts in Monroe County failed.
In 1945, Kirby obtained an assistant prosecutor's opinion that Sawyer's law was unconstitutional and, based upon that opinion, he stopped paying the library's bills. The staff worked three months without pay and then the library was shut down. With Sawyer and William Weipert representing the library, the case went to court to force the auditor to make payments from penal fines for library operations. The Library lost the case, primarily on the grounds that the law was written only for Monroe County. 2,700 petition signatures urged the Board of Supervisors to act to restore library service and contracts were negotiated with most school districts that put the library back into business. The judge suggested a legislative remedy to the legal situation, and this was accomplished in 1947.
From the early '40s until 1961, the library operated almost entirely on penal fine revenues. These fluctuated and there were leaner years and better years. In 1958, cities and townships were authorized to adopt parallel ordinances. Penal fine revenue between 1958 and 1961 dropped from $230,000 to $170,000, and a funding crisis occurred. When the Supervisors refused a request for a $100,000 appropriation to support library service, branches were closed and service was sharply curtailed.
This situation led to the adoption of a 1/4 mill levy to provide the first local tax support of this library and (in 1963) to the merger of the city libraries with the county library.
The 1963 Constitution retained the provision that penal fines support libraries.
In 1972 a 7-day, 24 hour weigh station was established and penal fine revenues jumped. That same year the judges (at the state level) proposed a constitutional amendment to divert penal fines to supporting the judicial system.
In the early '80's the Saginaw Public Library sued their district court successfully over the division between court costs and penal fines. They won the suit, but had limited success in actually altering the situation, a condition that remains today in much of the state.
Locally, the court system has always maintained that the library is getting all fines and that costs have not been distorted. While the ratio of fines to costs in Monroe is better than some other areas of the state, the question of the division of costs and fines is a touchy one and the budgetary pressure placed on the courts to generate more of their operating costs is significant.
Over the years, the Road Commission has eyed penal fines generated both by weight violations and other traffic offenses as a possible revenue source. So have township supervisors, county commissioners, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, auditors, crime labs, the DNR, many legislators, and various other agencies.
Monroe County, the place where it all started, has consistently generated large penal fine revenues -- substantially larger than most other areas in the state except Detroit. It is thus not surprising that this county has been a focal point for many of the battles over this source of library funding. Nor is it surprising that other local officials have repeatedly sought to divert the library's funding.
While the library has been generally successful in defending this revenue source, it has been significantly eroded in a number of ways, and there have been periods of sharp decline in this revenue which resulted in service cuts and retrenchment. One of these resulted in the first library property tax in the county; others required increases in tax rates to the present level. But while Monroe County Library System currently levies 1 mill, many Michigan libraries this size levy up to 2 mills, a few as much as 4 mills.
In years when penal fines exceeded expectations, the library has successfully banked money for development purposes. Penal fines paid for the Ellis building almost fifty years ago and for two later expansions without requiring any tax dollars; in the mid 1990's, penal fines budgeted for the purpose in prior years funded a major library automation project. In years when they decline, like 1996, service cuts were necessary.
Today, while local per capita library taxes remain significantly below average for libraries this size, the overall level of support, collection resources, and per capita use exceed the state's averages. Penal fines have produced the funding which has enabled Monroe County citizens to enjoy superior library services and resources.