Stephanie Riegel: Unpaid tickets: an obvious problem with uncertain solutions

Problems with unpaid parking tickets are nothing new in Baton Rouge. From time to time, various media outlets report on the millions of dollars in unpaid tickets that go uncollected. Everyone gets upset. Council members vow to do something. New procedures are put in place … and then, well, nothing much changes.

Consider the current situation. According to the Clerk of City Court, which is the repository of statistics on the subject, the city has a backlog of nearly 87,000 outstanding parking tickets dating back to 2000. Assuming each of those tickets was written for the standard $15, the city is missing out on at least $1.3 million in uncollected revenue.

But it’s likely missing out on even more. Fines automatically accrue on unpaid tickets, which means those 87,000 tickets are now worth $30 or $40 or $100 each—or more. In other words, anywhere from $1.3 million to more than $8 million, theoretically, is owed to the city for parking violations. That may not be a colossal amount of green, but it’s enough to make a difference in a municipal budget that could barely afford to give city employees a badly needed pay raise.

But who’s counting? No one, it seems. One can fall down a black hole of bureaucracy when looking into the seemingly simple matter of unpaid parking tickets. The deeper you dig, the more confusing the mess becomes.

“What seems like it should be a real simple process is not,” concedes Randy Ligh, who heads collections for the Parish Attorney’s Office, which is somewhat, though not entirely, responsible for collecting unpaid parking fines.

The city has been grappling with this for some time. Until 2012, it issued “bench warrants” to those who didn’t pay their parking tickets. The warrants sounded intimidating, but they were really an ineffective and empty threat. Parking tickets are civil violations, not criminal, so no one was ever in danger of being hauled to jail for failing to pay up on an expired parking meter.

In 2012, the city did away with bench warrants and began issuing default judgments, which are signed by City Court judges at the request of the city prosecutor, who is not to be confused with the parish attorney but works under the PAO. Officials thought it would be easier to pursue those who don’t pay judgments than to try to round up thousands of people on toothless warrants.

But collecting default judgments isn’t as easy as it may seem, primarily because violators aren’t that much more motivated to pay the judgments than they were the original tickets. Besides, no one is really going after them. Since the new system went into place, the city prosecutor has obtained 11,614 default judgments. But the PAO doesn’t know how many of those judgments have been paid because the judgments are paid directly to City Court and the Clerk of City Court doesn’t readily share that data with the PAO.

The PAO’s collections department does, in theory, pursue repeat offenders—those with five or more default judgments—and the Baton Rouge Police Department can immobilize vehicles with five or more outstanding tickets. But the PAO’s office says pursuing repeat offenders has simply not been a top priority because it is time consuming and not cost effective.

Several reasons play into this, starting with the fact that the PAO doesn’t even know who the repeat offenders are. Ligh says his office has requested an updated list from the Clerk of City Court but hasn’t gotten one. Second, parking tickets are issued to vehicle owners, not drivers, and the only means by which officials have to track down those vehicle owners is through their license plates, which means involving another layer of bureaucracy—the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Vanity and specialty plates further complicate the process, sometimes making it impossible to trace the owners. Then, there’s the simple fact that people move and sometimes it’s simply not worth all the trouble of tracking them down to collect a $15 parking ticket.

For his part, Clerk of City Court Lon Norris says his office does everything it can to help smooth out the process but that collections lie with the PAO. As to why he hasn’t provided the PAO with more data, he says he only recently received a request for the list of repeat offenders and that he intends to fill it but needs to bring in staff overtime to run the data. A weekend recently set aside for that purpose was canceled when an employee involved in the process had a family emergency, he says.

In other words, excuses and explanations are aplenty, but not action.

There has to be a better way. This is not rocket science, and it is not an insurmountable problem. Other cities contract private vendors to collect unpaid parking tickets and have had plenty of success with it. Acting Parish Attorney LeAnne Batson says the city administration at one point had discussions with a third party collections agency but “that avenue was not chosen.” She does not know why.

Perhaps it really isn’t worth the return on investment to go after years-old unpaid parking tickets. Perhaps our city government is so well off it doesn’t need the revenues. But then you have to wonder why we should bother to pay our parking tickets.

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