Change afoot frees booted drivers

Device can be unlocked by motorist after paying fines with credit card by phone

November 07, 2008|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,

This is how Jeffrey Davis reacted yesterday moments after a team of Baltimore parking agents slapped a shiny yellow boot on the left front wheel of his Ford Probe:

"I don't know why I got a boot!"

And then: "This doesn't make no sense!"

Finally: "What else will go wrong?"

What Davis did not notice (or appreciate) at first was that the metal lock on his wheel was a new device that gives him the option of removing it himself after paying parking tickets with a credit card over the telephone.

It's a process that is supposed to take minutes instead of hours - or even days, for drivers who were unlucky enough to get locked before a public holiday.

In the past, Davis would have had to pay his fines in person at a downtown government building and then wait for a city worker to arrive with a key and remove the device.

Convenience comes at a cost. It used to be that drivers had to pay outstanding parking tickets plus a $24 fee to remove the lock. All of that money went to city coffers. Now the city receives the unpaid parking fines, but the boot fee has been increased to $100 and goes to Paylock, a New Jersey-based company which has provided the SmartBoot service in Baltimore since mid-October.

City transportation department chief Alfred H. Foxx said the new arrangement will be a financial plus.

Even though the city no longer gets boot-removal money, parking enforcers will have more time to track down scofflaws - generating more revenue.

"It came out that it was a pretty good deal for us," Foxx said. "Particularly when you look at the customer service aspect. We're trying to make our operation a little more efficient and customer-friendly."

The extra time will help the city whittle away at the $68 million worth of outstanding unpaid parking tickets that have been issued in the city.

The system appears to be growing in popularity. One Virginia city uses the system on residents with unpaid property taxes. Officials in Prince George's County have used the self-removing boots since January and have been pleased with them.

In Prince George's, scofflaws pay a $100 boot fee. And the county government also paid the company 14 percent of ticket revenues collected for the first six months, and now pays 10 percent - a cut that Baltimore is not handing over.

Baltimore has leased 120 of the boots, and as of yesterday morning, officers had installed them 404 times, collecting $97,911 in unpaid fines. No figures were available from a comparable period last year.

To release the device, drivers call a toll-free number and provide credit card account information to pay old tickets and a $100 fine. Drivers receive a code number that unlocks the device.

The motorist must drop off the boot in one of the collection locations or be charged an additional $500 penalty. If the boots aren't removed in four days, cars are towed.

Unlocked boots can't be relocked, so rogue residents can't drive around the city locking up cars of, say, spurned lovers or annoying bosses. The lock doesn't work on unusually thick tires, so some might still have to endure the old removal process.

Yesterday morning, two members of the city's scofflaw team, Trina Guice and Chiquita White, drove around East Baltimore looking for repeat violators. Their white city van was equipped with two cameras perched above the windshield, which feed license plate images to a computer equipped with character recognition software. Plate numbers are matched against a database.

When the computer found a plate with three outstanding tickets, the screen turned red and an alarm sounded. They didn't utter a word when the computer picked up Davis' car in the 500 block of Patterson Park Ave. Guice lugged a boot out of the back of the van.

A few minutes later, Davis came out of his house and discovered the boot. He did not feel like discussing his unpaid fines, or the boot, at length, although he acknowledged that he was racking up tickets because he did not have a valid residential parking permit until recently. He needed to take care of the issue, he said, so he could get to work.

And he did. The boot went on shortly before 11 a.m. and he paid his fines by 11:25 a.m., according to city parking agents. He dropped off the boot at 12:24 at a St. Paul Street collection site.Meanwhile, Guice and White moved on, finding another violator just one block south. The pair boot between 30 and 40 cars a day. "Some days you have good days, other days you don't," White said.The new system is part of an overhaul of the parking division that includes the plate recognition software that went into use last year.

The new tools have even led to the recovery of stolen cars.

Said Yolanda Cason, a supervisor in the parking department: "We've come a long way at scofflaw."


Residents are eligible for a boot if

* They have three unpaid parking tickets

* The last ticket is 30 days overdue

Places where the boot can be returned

* 400 S. Central Ave.

* 300 W. Lombard St.

* 1012 St. Paul St.

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