Irked motorist calls Town of Kenton a ‘ticket mill’

KENTON — A recently-ticketed 62-year-old Hartly man claims the tiny town is a speed trap.

Richard T. Kepfer believes he has the numbers to prove it.

Not so fast, the Town of Kenton’s vice mayor said earlier this week.

Mr. Kepfer maintains that more than $131,000 collected in traffic tickets in 2016 is excessive for such a small municipality, but Paul Caple counters that speeders constantly passing through the crossroads town endangers the citizenry and makes vigilant law enforcement a must.

After being cited by Kenton Police for an alleged cell phone violation May 10, Mr. Kepfer filed a Freedom of Information Act with the town of approximately 265 residents near the Maryland border requesting details of the western Kent County town’s revenue sources.

On June 23, Vice Mayor Caple provided statistics on money generated in 2016 and through this year. Besides 2016’s $131,385.91 in traffic tickets, Kenton also generated revenue from town taxes ($3,347.35), federal and state grants ($1,922.42) and municipal building rent ($2,370).

Northbound traffic on Del. 42 enters into Kenton town limits in a 25 mph speed zone this week. (Delaware State News)

Traffic fines from Jan. 1 to June 23, 2017, totaled $52,068.53, along with town taxes ($830.12) and municipal building rent ($1,300). No federal or state grants have been obtained so far this year.

According to Mr. Kepfer, the FOIA results confirmed his suspicions about Kenton’s motive for pulling over drivers.

“The town has become a ticket mill,” he said. “That’s all they’re doing to create revenue. They’ve struggled to do that since that company shut down.”

On March 11, 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shuttered Kenton-based Roos Foods for supposed health violations; Mr. Kepfer contends the town has struggled financially ever since.

Additionally, Kenton’s finances were drained after the 2011 conviction of a former town treasurer who reportedly embezzled nearly $200,000 over two years, which Mr. Kepfer believes adds to the stress.

“They’ve got to make up for that somehow,” he said.

There’s nothing out of the ordinary when it comes to policing in Kenton, Vice Mayor Caple said.

“It’s not a crime to enforce the law, but it is a crime last time I checked to break the law,” he said. “The Kenton PD is here to provide public safety.

“They enforce laws that everyone is responsible to know. If Mr. Kepfer had obeyed the law he wouldn’t have been pulled over. It’s as simple as that.”

The number of tickets are in “direct relation to how many people come through this town and completely disregard traffic laws while endangering themselves and everyone around them.”

Recalling the stop

Mr. Kepfer received a warning for supposedly traveling 35 mph in a 25 mph zone near the intersection of North Main (Del. 300) and West Commerce Street (Del. 42) and cited for a $206 cell phone violation.

He said he “may have been past 25” in a zone when approaching an upcoming 35 mph sign in his Chevrolet at 9:01 a.m.

Police indicated on the ticket that the vehicle’s speed was determined by a stationary radar.

“I go that way all the time,” Mr. Kepfer said of the east-west pathway connecting the Smyrna-Clayton area to the Maryland border and major traffic artery U.S. 301 with Kenton in-between.

When the officer saw a cell phone in the vehicle near the driver, Mr. Kepfer said “he saw the money. The speed was just a false pretense to stop me.

Traffic coming from Smyrna, Cheswold and the Maryland border intersects at Main (Del. 300) and Commerce (Del. 42) streets in Kenton. (Delaware State News)

“I told him I had been talking to my wife earlier but wasn’t using it when he saw me,” said Mr. Kepfer, who is married with four daughters and 10 grandchildren. “He said I admitted to it and then wrote out the ticket.”

Mr. Kepfer signed the ticket portion that stated: “I wish to plead not guilty or not responsible.”

An arraignment is scheduled for 9 a.m. on July 24 in Justice of the Peace Court 8 in Smyrna. Mr. Kepfer said he’ll contest the charge and plans to subpoena Kenton Police Chief Michael Hibbert — who was not involved with the stop — regarding a letter sent in the aftermath. Earlier this week, he would not reveal contents of the letter due to his upcoming court appearance.

“I’m not backing down,” Mr. Kepfer said. “They’re the ones who have to back down.”

Attempts to reach Chief Hibbert — hired in March 2012 after a 26 1/2 year stint with the Delaware State Police — this week were unsuccessful.

Mr. Kepfer will represent himself in court because “it’s just a ticket, they can’t put me in jail. … I think it will be dismissed one way or another, whether it’s through what I present or the police not showing up.” He said he’s had some speeding violations before, but none in the past six or seven years.

The Kenton-related FOIA request was prompted by the officer’s “whole attitude,” that Mr. Kepfer perceived.

“He said the he could write two tickets for $306, but was only going to write one.”

Seeking information

On June 27, Mr. Kepfer filed a FOIA request asking for “payroll records and hours worked for the chief of police and the patrolman working for the city of Kenton for the last fiscal year and the present fiscal year to date.

“This is to include any and all payments to the officers and reasons for the payments.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Kepfer received an e-mail update from Vice Mayor Caple that stated:

“The Town is in the process of fulfilling your FOIA request as soon as I have copied the information I will forward it to you. Please keep in mind that FOIA law doesn’t require us to compile data nor answer questions only to produce documents that are in existence at this time.”

Mr. Kepfer described himself as being “stonewalled” after receiving the correspondence and sent an e-mail to Vice Mayor Caple the next day:

“You do know that the town has 15 days to respond to my request for information,” he responded.

“What I asked for should be contained in the town’s monthly budget reports and in the fiscal year end reports. So can you give me a time line on how long it is going to take to complete my 27 June 2017 request?“

Describing Kenton as a “very small town with a part-time treasurer and no regular business hours” to the media earlier, Vice Mayor Caple explained the challenges to compiling information requests quickly. City officials receive $25 for each monthly meeting attended as compensation and the town’s overall budget amount was not immediately available.

No longer working after 35 years in the railroad industry and over seven years in the U.S. Air Force, Mr. Kepfer said he decided to seek more information from the town because “I’m retired now so I have plenty of time to look at things.”

Need for policing

According to Vice Mayor Caple, Kenton allocated funds for a part-time police force in 2012 to address safety concerns within town limits, noting slow response time by the over-stretched Delaware State Police to accidents, emergencies and reported crimes.

The state police provided limited coverage that cost $3,000 per month at time-and-a-half wages for troopers, then-Mayor Mr. Caple said when the police chief hiring was announced.

Now, two officers can work up to 30 hours a week combined at their discretion to protect and serve Kenton. Besides the traffic concerns, Vice Mayor Caple said municipal police stay busy with domestic and vandalism issues and responded to a recent suicide call.

“They address crimes when on duty and assist neighboring police departments if needed,” Vice Mayor Caple said.

Most of the revenue generated in traffic tickets is re-invested back into funding police salaries, vehicle and equipment maintenance, insurance and associated costs. The locals benefit from a more immediate police presence, Vice Mayor Caple said.

The town’s marked patrol car is presently “out of commission,” Vice Mayor Caple said and the town is in a market for another vehicle to replace one that cost $7,700 to maintain last year. An unmarked police vehicle is currently in use.

“We figured if we broke even on costs it would be worth having our own police here for everything they could do,” he said. “The little that is left over is used to help the town in some way.”

According to Vice Mayor Caple, the plan to aggressively enforce traffic laws began in 2012 and has increased safety in town since.

“It’s made a difference,” he said. “The officers were sometimes pulling over two or three vehicles at a time when they began because of the need for strong enforcement of the law. Now, they may only write three tickets in a day.”

Still, Vice Mayor Caple says he sees vehicles traveling 80 miles per hour through town and motorists with little or no regard to speed limits and stop lights.

“People come through this town and completely disregard traffic laws,” he said. “They have no concern for public safety and that makes it dangerous for everyone who lives here.

“Parents with children should be especially troubled if there’s no emphasis on slowing people down.

“I don’t see how we can be limited on enforcing the law if someone is breaking it.”

Police chiefs recommend

According to Chairman William Bryson, the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council’s Traffic Code of Ethics recommends that no more than 10 percent of a municipality’s revenues should come through traffic fines.

“The reason for traffic enforcement is for providing public safety, not generating revenue,” he said, speaking in general terms.

While “overall it has gotten better, there are still some departments who use it for revenue.”

Chief Bryson oversees the Camden Police Department, which he said typically produces $40,000 annually (two percent) in fines among town revenues of a little over $2,000,000. The town has a population of approximately just over 3,500 Chief Bryson said “we focus on other issues” rather than traffic.

Most targeted traffic operations in Camden result from complaints by residents, Chief Bryson said.

During the past four fiscal years, Cheswold Police have received an average of $52,582.50 annually from fine money, according to Chief Christopher Workman.
The town’s population is approximately 1,400.

In 2016, Milford, with a population of 10,100, received $94,482.89 from criminal fines and traffic tickets.

Dover, with a population of 37,350 collected $288,980 in fines from city ordinances, traffic and criminal incidents.

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