PORTLAND, Ore. – As Portland leaders grapple with budget issues, the city is owed a hefty sum of money from drivers who violate parking laws.
There is currently $42 million dollars in unpaid parking tickets in Multnomah County, much of which would come to the city of Portland. It’s a lot of money, especially when you consider how that would help cover the $25 million in budget cuts Portland’s new mayor is asking city bureaus to make.
KATU decided to shine the light on how our parking ticket system operates. We found some of the barriers preventing the city and county court system from bringing that delinquent money in to government coffers.
One of the key issues is communication, or lack thereof, between the city's Parking Enforcement division, which issues the tickets and the county/state courts, which enforce and collect unpaid tickets. The city and courts split parking ticket revenue 50/50.
Each week the Multnomah County Circuit Court gives the city a list of hundreds of license plates for cars that could be towed for unpaid fines. But the city does not actively patrol for those cars and trucks.
If a parking patrol enforcement officer happens to come across a car on the list they still have to make sure the person who racked up the tickets actually still owns the vehicle.
"We have to verify the registration for the vehicle," said Portland Bureau of Transportation spokeswoman Cheryl Kuck. By the time that happens and a tow truck is dispatched, the car could be gone.
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Finding the cars is often not as simple as knocking on the owner's door. We tried to find the person who has the most unpaid parking tickets in the last three years.
She's a 22-year-old driver from Beaverton who drove a Chevy Malibu while racking up 64 tickets worth $10,095. Our research shows she's now living in Utah.
When we went the address for the car that's second on the list with 47 unpaid tickets, we found former owner Paul Crabtree.
"That's a car I sold two years ago. Reported it to DMV, it’s not my car anymore,” Crabtree said. “The other person didn't register it so they are in violation of that as well. They are scum bags.”
Further complicating the effort to collect unpaid tickets is the fact that refusing to pay is not a crime.
"That would be a significant incentive for collection activity to take place, but it's probably not going to happen," said Doug Bray, Multnomah County Court Administrator. "The Legislature is very resistant to elevating parking citations to that level."
A police officer can't arrest a driver for unpaid tickets and a judge doesn't have the power to take away a driver’s license. Even if a parking patrol officer succeeds in having a car towed, there is nothing to stop the owner of the car from paying the fine to get the car back and continue driving without paying all the previous tickets.
Multnomah County court officials tracked 124,447 tickets issued within a six month window in 2010. The court reports an 85 percent collection rate in the first six months, 90 percent after 12 months, and 92 percent after 18 months.
New strategy in Seattle
Seattle has turned to a new tactic to collect parking fines. In July 2011, the city launched a program with New Jersey-based Paylock to boot cars that belong to people with four or more unpaid parking tickets. The boot locks the car’s wheels and prevents someone from driving it away.
Seattle parking enforcement officers patrol city streets with two vans equipped with an instrument that is capable of license plate recognition. In the first year of the program the city brought in $2.2 million by booting 75 cars a week.
Seattle currently has $57,874,199 in outstanding parking fines. That includes the initial fines, plus penalties and interest owed to the city.
The compliance rate for paying tickets in Seattle was 77.5 percent in 2011, the most recent data available.
Paylock also approached the city of Portland, offering to track down our scofflaws and their revenue, but the Rose City turned them down. Portland would rather tow the car and free up a parking spot.
"I don't even know if our parking enforcement officers would have the authority to drive around and identify through some sort of pinging device a license plate that has some sort of unpaid citation," said Kuck.
Trying to fix the problem in Portland
The amount of unpaid parking tickets could soon be going up. Just last week the city and court raised parking rates on seven types of fines.
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When fines aren't paid, the court system does have some power to compel people to pay; the court works with the Oregon Department of Revenue to go after the scofflaw's tax refunds. Unpaid tickets also stay on a driver's credit for 20 years and the court has contracts with three collection agencies to go after the debt.
Despite those efforts, the problem seems to be getting worse. The $42 million in unpaid fines currently on the books is $18 million more than five years ago.
$8.8 million of the current balance has been declared "inactive". That means the court system has tried to get it but exhausted all of their techniques.
Dana Haynes, spokesman for Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, said the mayor’s office is interested in the results of our reporting.
"Denying people services and cutting services is not an optimal way to do anything,” he said. “Looking at ways to raise money that makes sense is absolutely the first level, that's the low hanging fruit."