Amnesty could be ticket for violators

City Council set to vote today on two-day grace period for parking fines

August 11, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore City Council is set to vote today on a proposal to create an amnesty for parking violators that would allow anyone to pay old parking tickets without any penalties or interest.

The two-day grace period would kick in before Sept. 1, when the cash-strapped city will raise parking fines in an effort to generate $3.8 million more a year to help pay for city services.

The fine increase, approved by the council May 27, would raise the fines for a parking meter violation from $18 to $21 and would include a variety of other increases for other offenses.

"When we raised the fines on all the tickets, we wanted to first give help to as many people as possible before that takes hold," said Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, the council's vice chairwoman and primary sponsor of the bill. "The amnesty gives people a chance to start out with a clean slate."

Also tonight, the City Council is set to vote on the final version of an ordinance that would allow officers to write civil citations with fines ranging from $25 to $500 for a variety of minor offenses, from smoking in city buildings to loitering in designated drug free zones.

That bill is expected to pass with little debate, because it has been the subject of past hearings and revisions, council members said.

The parking amnesty bill, which was co-sponsored by City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, is also expected to pass, because 15 of 19 council members have signed on as supporters.

Spector said she wants voters to be happy before the municipal primaries Sept. 9, in which City Council members face re-election.

"To me, every day is political season. I work hard every day to get re-elected," said Spector, who has been pushing for a parking amnesty since the increase in parking fines was proposed in Feburary.

Opponents of the amnesty - including some city finance department officials - may ask the council to weaken the proposal before tonight's vote so that it helps fewer violators and is less expensive for the city.

These critics may try to introduce an amendment today that would limit the amnesty to tickets more than 3 years old, Rawlings Blake said. This would disqualify most people with parking fines.

Edward J. Gallagher, deputy director for the department of finance, warned the council in a memo June 18 that the city is starving for revenue and struggling to balance its budget.

Gallagher wrote that the city's spending plan for the year that started July 1 did not take into account the $4.2 million in revenue that would be lost through a parking ticket amnesty.

"Although well intentioned, this bill is poor public policy and should be rejected," Gallagher wrote.

City Councilman Robert W. Curran, who introduced the legislation to raise parking fines to help with the city's financial crunch, said it makes no sense to undermine that effort through an amnesty.

"It is a disservice to people, because it gets them into a mindset where they think they don't have to pay their tickets," Curran said.

Mayor Martin O'Malley - who would set the dates for the amnesty - opposes the idea of forgiving parking fines. But he will not veto the bill if the council approves it, according to officials in his office.

Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke raised parking penalties during the 1990s but also offered three parking amnesties.

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