Pay Up!

Our View: Uncollected Parking Tickets Are A Significant Revenue Source, And The City Should Ensure Its Collection Methods Target The Biggest Offenders

April 21, 2009

Scofflaw motorists owe Baltimore roughly $181 million in overdue parking fines. That's a potential windfall - about six years' worth of slots revenue once gaming comes to town. Or put another way, it's enough to lower the city's property tax rate by nearly 50 cents for one year; right now, city homeowners are picking up the tab for parking violators.

The city's effort to cash in on some 459,000 unpaid tickets by hiring a private collection firm has sparked protests -and a Facebook campaign - from motorists who have seen their $21 parking citations balloon to hundreds of dollars because of penalties. The late fees are what get most people in trouble, but given the parlous state of the city's finances now, calls to cap the $16 monthly late fee are premature.

Some motorists weren't notified of outstanding tickets because they changed addresses or live out of state. But much of the money is owed by commercial car rental companies that were left holding the bag for tickets accumulated by their customers. That's where the city should focus the bill collectors' efforts.

And then there are the habitual scofflaws who simply ignored the citations - they don't deserve much sympathy.

In just three months, the debt collectors have recouped $11.6 million for the city. Critics think Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson, a national law firm specializing in government debt collection, is too aggressive because it tracks down violators more efficiently than the city can. But that's why it was hired. The firm does offer to work out a payment plan for scofflaws that stops the penalties from accumulating, though drivers could still face restrictions on renewing their license or vehicle registration. And the firm doesn't report to credit bureaus, as some have charged, so an overdue ticket won't affect drivers' credit ratings.

Motorists who think they've been ticketed improperly can always go to court, where they are at the mercy of a judge - a sympathetic one, they hope. An amnesty program would help cash-strapped drivers, but a law prevents such relief until 2013, and it needs to be changed. Another four years is too long to wait, especially when it's city taxpayers who'll be footing the bill.

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