When Ticket-Writing Stops, Speed Trap Goes Broke
This is the story of a little town that lived by the speeding ticket and died by the speeding ticket.
For years, Macks Creek was a notorious speed trap along the back roads of Missouri.
The police in this no-stoplight town of 272 were said to spend most of their time pulling people over for not easing up on the gas enough as they came through Macks Creek on two-lane U.S. 54 on their way to and from the Lake of the Ozarks, one of the state’s most popular tourist sites.
In the last few years, the police wrote an estimated 2,900 traffic tickets a year, or an average of eight a day, every day. By 1994, more than three-quarters of the town’s annual revenue--or about $165,000--was coming from municipal court fines alone.
“Oh, I’d hear a lot of complaints, from people all over the country,” says Bonnie Evans, a friendly white-haired woman who runs Bonnie’s Restaurant, famous for its fried fruit pies. “A lot of people didn’t even want to come through here because they’d already gotten a ticket or they knew someone who had.”
In 1995, however, the state stepped in and passed a law proposed by a legislator who got stopped by Macks Creek police. It limited the amount of income a city could generate from traffic tickets to 45% of total revenue.
Three years later, Macks Creek is broke and filing for bankruptcy protection. The town is around $160,000 in debt.
The town’s police officers--four full-timers and one part-timer--were laid off more than a year ago. The radar guns and police cruisers they used to nail anyone who didn’t slow, almost immediately, from 65 to 45 mph as they came into town have been sold or repossessed.
The police department is locked and empty except for a big pile of uniforms, some still in dry-cleaning plastic, on a counter. Deputies from the Camden County Sheriff’s Department and troopers from the State Highway Patrol now protect Macks Creek.
The handsome brick City Hall has been turned into a senior citizens’ center staffed by a single volunteer who was busy swatting flies in the darkened building as she waited for seniors to arrive one recent morning.
City Hall’s phone number is answered by a recording from Mayor Gregg Eddins, who says to leave a message and he’ll call back.
Meanwhile, people in this friendly community of trees and rolling hills say they are angry and embarrassed. They are also deeply suspicious of what happened to all the money the town took in during the boom years.
The man who got the law changed, Rep. Delbert Scott, says he is saddened by the town’s financial trouble and didn’t intend to push it into bankruptcy. But the law “accomplished its purpose in shutting down a famous speed trap.”
The contours of the road worked to Macks Creek’s advantage. Its block-long downtown is between two hills, so that a driver entering town from either direction hits a downhill stretch just as the speed limit drops.
But Macks Creek police wrote more than just speeding tickets. Several people were cited for letting their wheels touch the white line on the shoulder of the road as they drove through town.
Among them were a father and son who were ticketed at different hours of the same day when they drove around a garbage truck that was making a left turn. That led to suspicions--never proved--that city officials were putting the garbage truck on the road just to generate tickets.
Macks Creek still has a billboard-sized, hand-lettered sign more than two stories high as a reminder of days past: “Warning --Reduced Speed 3/10 mile, 45 mph radar strictly enforced.” A barn roof on the other side of town used to have a similar sign.
“It was put there to give people a fair warning that they were about to be had, because they were,” says B.J. Carnahan, who runs a recording studio on the edge of town. He and other citizens erected the billboard on his property after the police department was formed in 1987 and began writing tickets at a furious pace.
If there is one good thing to come out of the whole affair, many people in town say, it is that Macks Creek is no longer a speed trap.
“There have been no speeding tickets issued in Macks Creek for a year and a half,” says City Attorney Mel Gilbert. He adds: “It’s hard to write tickets when you don’t have policemen.”