City needs to steer clear of parking ticket amnesties

October 12, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

I SHOULD feel renewed today, brothers and sisters. Friday should have been the first day of the rest of my life. Standing in line among the other parking-ticket deadbeats from all over Maryland should have approached spiritual experience - two guys behind me even engaged in a long discussion about Moses and the Promised Land - but it wasn't like that.

Not for me.

I shouldn't have been there to begin with, see. But I don't want to spoil this column with my own personal grievance with the city of Baltimore.

I won't bore you with the whole megillah about how I never should have received the parking ticket, and another $184 in late fees.

I am not the story here.

The story is the parking amnesty, a meshuga two-day event that brought thousands of people from all over Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania - and I was one of them, but I shouldn't have been! - to the Abel Wolman Municipal Building to have their late fees forgiven. It was Scofflaw Woodstock. There was a nice feeling of shared experience among the miscreants - people in all shapes, colors, amazing hairstyles and jewelry - as we all compared notes on our problems with parking tickets.

During the long wait, a pleasant woman named Gloria Burch chatted about two major news items - Kobe Bryant facing criminal charges in Colorado and C-Mart getting into the furniture business in Harford County. A representative of Shakoorah's Natural Hair Care came by to offer a special discount on rodding and the double strand twist. A young woman told me she was standing in line to pay a fine "for a friend," and that this "friend" was going to have to take her away on a nice weekend trip in return for the favor.

Most people seemed to be in a good mood.

And for good reason: They got off easy.

The City Council went soft when it approved this amnesty plan. What should have been more than $110 million in city coffers will probably end up being a fraction of that, if you go by what happened to me.

But I don't want to get into that.

This is not about me and how I paid my $20 parking fine from June 2002 but kept receiving late-fee notices anyway, reaching a grand total of $204 in fines. I can't be using this precious newspaper space to grind my own little ax.

So let's talk about Scott Whitley, a young guy in a dark suit with an American flag pin on his lapel and a cell phone attached to his ear. He came down from Harrisburg, Pa., to settle a $799 debt that dates to the Clinton administration. He's a salesman, see, and he travels a lot - kind of like me. He's in and out of the car a lot - kind of like me. He has lived in Annapolis and down in Virginia since 1999. The notices for his parking ticket fines went to his parents' house. He decided to settle up Friday, paying a small percentage of his fines.

He got off easy, like the other 35,000-plus people who stood in line. A woman who owed more than $4,000 got forgiveness for just $200.

Somebody help me out here. What happened to the good old days when the long lines outside the Wolman building were filled with people who knew they would not be allowed to renew their car registrations unless they paid their overdue parking fines? Wasn't that the hammer the city used to get people to pay?

"We're a little bit perplexed by that ourselves," Stanley J. Milesky, chief of the Bureau of Treasury Management, said the other day.

Just a suggestion, you guys: Either make people pay in full by holding up their car registrations or don't bother writing tickets and charging late fees. There has to be a consequence to being a parking-ticket deadbeat or the city is going to have to keep staging amnesty programs every few years just to salvage a few million in revenue. Mayor Martin O'Malley opposed amnesty, and he was right to do so.

And that's coming from me - a guy who got off paying $20 on a $204 bill.

Actually, if you want the whole story - and apparently you're going to get it now, even if you don't - I ended up paying $40.

I got the ticket in June 2002, a consequence of a day being particularly hectic and the overall parking situation in downtown Baltimore being particularly bad. Downtown B-town is one big parking-ticket trap. There are not enough places to park and all the meters are quarters-only.

On June 12, 2002, I got caught by one of those hard-nosed parking-control agents. She was just starting to write the ticket as I approached to feed the meter with quarters scrounged - downtown panhandler style - from friends. The meter had expired because, on my way to feed it, an elderly woman with four heavy grocery bags had asked me for directions to a bus stop.

Honest, that's what happened. I swear to God, who apparently was not watching at the time. I did a minor good deed and got a $20 parking ticket in return.

Then, after brooding for about four months, I paid the fine. But the city kept sending me delinquency notices, even after I mailed in a copy of my canceled check.

I paid another $20 Friday, just to be done with it.

That's $40 because I stopped for five minutes to tell an elderly lady how to get to the No. 8 bus.

Excuse me if I don't feel renewed.

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