Scofflaws jump at chance for parking-ticket amnesty

For two days, city forgives millions in late fees

October 10, 2003|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Paul Josephson spent hours yesterday poring over a biography of Benjamin Franklin, a man who prided himself on scrupulously settling his debts.

Josephson had all that time to read because he was stuck in a line that snaked around a city block - a huge queue of people waiting to pay delinquent parking tickets that had become, like some wines, more expensive with age.

The crowd was taking advantage of the first day of a two-day amnesty program, which forgives late fees that can quickly swell $20 fines into four-digit debts. By coughing up the face value of the tickets, and giving up the better part of a day, parking-ticket scofflaws could clear their debts. The amnesty program continues today.

Thousands flocked to the Abel Wolman Municipal Building as if the World Series were being played inside - and the Orioles were in it.

"It's nice to see I'm not the only person who waits forever to pay their parking tickets," said Josephson, 39, an environmental engineer from Havre de Grace who got a $20 ticket in Federal Hill about five years ago and watched the penalty climb to $877. Thanks to the amnesty program, Josephson had to pay only the original $20.

Tara Taylor-Bey had even more reason to be pleased. She collected 10 $20 tickets a couple of years ago but never paid. With late fees, she owed a whopping $4,148. Yesterday, she forked over $200 and was done with it.

"I'm a happy sister today," said Taylor-Bey, 35, who celebrated afterward by lunching at Lexington Market with two friends she bumped into while in line for four hours. "God was with me when he sent me this," she added, holding up the amnesty notice.

Nearly 200,000 people owed the city $113 million in overdue parking tickets before the amnesty period began, city officials said. If they all take advantage of the program, and all late fees are forgiven, the city would collect $14.6 million.

City officials declined to estimate how many people participated yesterday, partly because ticket holders were able to pay at money-order outlets and through the mail as well as at the Wolman building.

"I think this is one of the largest amnesties we've conducted," said Stanley J. Milesky, chief of the Bureau of Treasury Management.

The City Council bill that created the amnesty specified that another would not be offered for at least 10 years.

"It really isn't a regular feature of city government," Milesky said.

Baltimore is one of the few cities to impose a system of endlessly escalating penalties for late parking tickets. Fees grow monthly, so an unpaid $20 ticket can quickly grow to hundreds of dollars.

Scofflaws aren't supposed to get away without paying for more than two years, because people with overdue tickets are not allowed to renew their car registrations. But some buy new vehicles, drive unregistered cars or manage to slip through the cracks some other way.

"We're a little bit perplexed by that ourselves," Milesky said.

The city issues 350,000 to 400,000 parking tickets a year, collecting about $8.7 million in fines and $8 million in late fees, officials said. Under the amnesty program, the amount collected in fines is expected to go up, while the amount for late fees will shrink.

Critics of the program said that it would cost the city millions. But supporters said amnesty could bring the city more revenue than it might have otherwise received, because of the scofflaws paying tickets yesterday and today.

The City Council, which passed the parking amnesty bill in August, wanted to give drivers a break. Baltimore has repeatedly increased fines and late fees over the years to help fill the city's coffers. The most recent increase took effect Sept. 1, raising parking meter tickets from $18 to $25 and pushing residential parking fines from $25 to $40.

Mayor Martin O'Malley opposed the idea of forgiving late fees but said he would not veto the bill if the council approved it. Through a spokesman, he declined to comment yesterday.

Not everyone who waited in the long line had a huge debt to settle. Jerry Crispino saved just $32 in late fees for his son, Jerry Crispino II, a Navy Seal serving in Iraq. Crispino said he was shocked to see the huge line when he arrived yesterday morning but figured he would stick it out.

Hundreds of people also lined up at 42 Global Express Money Order locations around the city, which accepted payments for a fee of $1 per ticket, said Vassil Nikolov, manager of the chain's bill-paying department. Global Express will not know how many tickets it handled until early next week, Nikolov said.

Outside the Wolman building, ticket payers passed the time reading, smoking, chatting on cell phones, talking with fellow scofflaws, and, while at the corner of Holliday and Saratoga streets, listening to the music that blares from the nearby Hollywood Diner. Grateful for mild weather, they came with backpacks full of provisions: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, water and, for those who came with little ones, bottles of baby formula.

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