For scofflaws, a little grace

October 10, 2003

IT'S NOT the note, it's the interest. That's what drew the round-the-block crowd to clear their parking records - and their consciences - at the Wolman building yesterday morning.

For the city, it's a chunk of cash in pocket at the cost of all the late fees wracked up by 358,393 overdue parking tickets. Based on turnout, the chunk should be considerable.

The line at midmorning was not the zoo one councilman had predicted, perhaps because the day was fine and the department organized. Planners even thought to set up six portable toilets along the wait.

Folks waiting were mainly the saddest of the scofflaws - those who had too much in fines or who had never received their "Special Amnesty" letters so they couldn't pay at one of the Global Express payment spots or by mail. Still, they weren't cranky - a few hours to shave off hundreds of dollars in tacked-on fines was worth it.

Their crimes varied. Getting in the way of street cleaning. Parking in a residential area without showing the proper permit in the window. Not moving during rush hours. Letting the meter run out. The sign says park until 4:15, but I got a ticket at 4:12.

And so many excuses: I moved and the ticket notices weren't forwarded. My girlfriend/boyfriend/dog messed up, and I didn't find out until I got a late notice for hundreds of dollars. I tried to catch the last amnesty but missed it; friends said "wait till next year," so I've been waiting.

That last excuse is the one City Hall dreads. During the 1990s, the city offered amnesties three times, perhaps helping form a mindset among those with a slipperier grasp on civic duty. But when city workers write the tickets, the number crunchers set up the budget assuming they'll get most of that dough. This time, the crunchers fret that the city will forfeit $4 million that's already set in the fiscal plan. Why offer people who break the law a carrot when it sinks the city deeper in the hole?

With their chief stick the letters mailed repeatedly to drivers' homes, though, chances are the money from those longtime ticket-holders just won't be rolling in. And the harsher stick - a hold on motor vehicle renewal - doesn't work on many of these tickets, which were written on long-gone cars or cars with dead tags.

One also could argue with the infinite-fine structure of the tickets. Late fees accrue monthly, forever, so a couple of $27 "wrong area" tickets can lead a man to wait four hours in line to avoid $1,400 in fees, and another to wait that long - plus 11 years - to avoid one for $680. Bet that one isn't in the city's budget.

It's better that the city gets more of the $14.6 million face value in pocket rather than dreaming of an elusive potential $113 million - and keeps its promise that the next amnesty is more than a decade down the road.

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