Scofflaws warned about parking tickets Baltimore County wants its money, threatens to tow their vehicles

May 13, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Parking scofflaws, beware: Baltimore County is ready to roll out the wreckers.

Determined to wring every penny it can out of those who fail to pay parking tickets, the county is sending letters to more than 300 motorists, warning that their vehicles might be confiscated if they don't pay up.

Those letters -- aimed at county residents with three or more tickets, who owe a collective $235,000 -- are part of an aggressive enforcement effort expected to pull in $2.5 million this fiscal year.

The crackdown includes a California-based collection agency that has found hundreds of delinquents, many of them from out of state, hauling in $200,000 in the past eight months.

While county officials insist they are reluctant to impound vehicles, the warning letters are no bluff, said Joel M. Schlanger, deputy county finance director. In a typical month, the county tows several scofflaw vehicles, leaving the motorist to pay or see the car sold at auction.

"Our goal is to collect the ticket," said Schlanger.

More than pocket change is at stake. Maryland motorists owe the county $4.4 million in unpaid tickets, officials estimate, mainly because of climbing late penalties of $10 per month, per ticket if a bill isn't paid within 30 days.

The tab doesn't stop at the county line. Out-of-state motorists owe nearly $400,000 in fines and penalties.

Because delinquents can be hard to find, the county turned last year to Data Ticket Inc. of Garden Grove, Calif., for help. The company keeps 20 percent of everything it collects, and uses a 48-state computer database to track down scofflaws.

Jeanne Kernan of Frederick County was one of them. She got a notice in October, warning that her credit rating could be in jeopardy if she failed to pay more than $300 on a ticket her son received in Baltimore County nearly two years ago.

She insists she never knew about the ticket, never got a notice by mail and says the registration was never flagged by the state. "I thought it was a sham," she said of the dunning notice. But she paid anyway, rather than fight the bureaucracy.

County officials, who say they simply want to get the tickets paid, have the option of waiving up to 50 percent of the penalties. Though it doesn't offer periodic amnesty on parking fines, as does Baltimore, the county is willing to negotiate on penalties.

At times, however, county police invoke the most extreme sanction: towing the offending vehicle.

It's an imperfect solution, officials say. The county tows vehicles only within its borders, making that option useless for thousands of out-of-county tickets. In other cases -- such as that of a Hillendale man who owes $639 in fines plus $3,170 in penalties on 33 tickets -- officials simply can't find the car.

Then there is Susan Meehling Whitney, the county record-holder when it comes to delinquent tickets.

Whitney owes $8,893 in parking fines and penalties for 22 tickets she received before her Dundalk liquor store business failed in 1996. The county confiscated her 1988 Chrysler three years ago. But heart surgery and $30,000 in business debts have prevented her from paying -- and the amount grows each month.

On Monday, she lost what might be her last hope to pay creditors when the county liquor board denied her attempt to sell her liquor license -- an act that might void her license.

"I was hoping I wouldn't have to file bankruptcy," the 49-year-old said after the hearing. "My total investment is now for nothing."

Still, county officials are confident their enforcement efforts will pay off. About half the people who have received the county's warning letters have come in to settle up, Schlanger said.

Schlanger recounted a call he received from an enraged father who, home sick from work, opened one of the county's warning letters.

The man's teen-age daughter had racked up 22 parking tickets in handicapped zones, fire lanes and at expired meters -- then intercepted 66 earlier notices to pay. He vows that she will pay him back, the man said, after he settles up with the county.

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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