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04-20-09, 10:53 PM #1
Baltimore is charging 1,200% annual interest on unpaid parking tickets. Naturally, someone has a problem with this
A recent push by a city-hired collections agency to haul in roughly $132 million in overdue parking tickets has sparked complaints from some who say the fines - averaging $721 - are excessive.
The agency, Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson, has collected $11.6 million for Baltimore in fines and late penalties from parking scofflaws since late 2006. In its latest collections effort, which started in February, the Texas-based agency sent out 80,000 notices to people with long-unpaid tickets.
But some argue that the city is trying to raise revenue in a dire economy on the backs of people who have seen minor parking tickets - some as low as $21 - swell to hundreds of dollars because the city adds monthly late penalties until the fine is paid.
Jason Howard, a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University, launched a Facebook group and a blog to protest what he and others believe is an unfair practice of assessing $16 monthly late fees for parking tickets, in perpetuity, until the ticket and fines are paid.
"How can we be expected to pay into a system that's inherently flawed?" said Howard, who acknowledges getting a ticket three years ago but says he can't recall whether he paid it. Howard says he never got the city's late payment notices until he was shocked by the $603 collection notice he received in February.
He thinks the city could be doing a more diligent job of notifying people before the fines escalate into the hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.
"If the fines can go as high they want, it's in their best interest to let them sit," said Howard.
Seeking to tap the outstanding fines as a revenue source, the city has been referring parking fines that are six months overdue to Linebarger. As of mid-March, the outstanding city parking tickets totaled about 459,000 - with fines amounting to about $181 million, according to city officials.
Scott Peterson, a City Hall spokesman, said the city sent several notices to people who owed fines that were more than six months overdue and who are now part of Linebarger's collections effort. He said that if people feel they do not owe the fines, they can request a District Court hearing.
"That's the legal process that's in place," Peterson said.
Phillipa Bowers, an official who works Linebarger's Baltimore office, declined to comment and referred questions to the city's Bureau of Revenue Collections.
Henry Raymond, chief of the bureau, said the recent collection effort focuses on tickets dating from 2000 to 2008. Under the city contract, Linebarger keeps 20 percent of the money it collects, he said. With that percentage, it would have kept $2.3 million of the $11.6 million it collected for the city.
Raymond said his office sends three delinquency notices to the last official address connected to a person's vehicle registration with the state Motor Vehicle Administration and does the same with out-of-state registrations. After that, the outstanding ticket gets referred to Linebarger, and the MVA can flag owners' accounts, forcing them to settle the fine when they try to re-register their vehicles, he said.
Raymond said his office doesn't have the authority to waive or adjudicate the fines - that's up to a judge in the city District Court. But the city also hasn't reported delinquent account holders to credit bureaus in the past, Raymond said.
District Court won't automatically grant a trial. Daniel Wemhoff, a Virginia motorist and attorney, tried to dispute a parking ticket based on the $16-a-month penalties, which he called excessive, but a city District Court judge denied his request. So he sued the city in federal court, arguing that unlimited monthly late penalties were unconstitutional, court records show.
Wemhoff claimed that he never received the original $23 ticket in 2005, and his fine ballooned to $519. But in December, a federal judge ruled for the city, saying the penalties were not "grossly disproportional" to the underlying offense, according to court records.
Baltimore gave a break to parking scofflaws in 2003, when it held a two-day amnesty in which people were allowed to pay only the face value of the ticket. By law, another amnesty can't be offered until at least 2013. But Howard and others think the city should hold another amnesty, as a quick and easy way to bring in money.
Howard's own ticket, which he received three years ago, grew into a $603 bill. At the time, Howard had Virginia tags on his car, but switched his registration to Maryland about a week after he got the ticket. He says he has had his registration updated with the state for several years, but never got the follow-up notices that the city claims to have sent him.
"People are starting to post their stories," Howard said of the Facebook group. A number of the members live out of state and probably can't travel to Maryland to fight the fines, yet they worry about it affecting their credit rating, he said. "It's socially irresponsible law," Howard said.
City Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young agrees. He said that in the past, he tried to introduce legislation that would cap the unending monthly late fines, but the measure was politically unpopular. When Baltimore retained Linebarger, he said he pushed the city to allow people to pay back the fines on a payment plan, which the collections agency offers.
"I think there should be a cap," Young said. "It shouldn't go on forever."
Anne Arundel and Howard counties tack on modest fees and then flag drivers' registrations in the state's motor vehicle database. Baltimore County, according to its code, allows unlimited monthly penalties.
In Baltimore City, some people are skeptical of the high fines because the city's inspector general, Hilton Green, investigated a parking enforcement agent who wrote 112 fraudulent tickets a few years ago. That person was fired last year.
Green said he hasn't received complaints recently from people alleging fraud. But he did note several cases in which parking enforcement agents accidentally recorded incorrect information about a tag - causing the wrong owner to get fined.
He has also seen cases in which a driver who gets a ticket puts it on another person's car, in hopes the innocent driver will pay it. Or people lend their car to someone who gets a ticket but never tells the owner or pays the fine, Green said.
None of these scenarios appears to apply to Mary Davis, who lives near Lynchburg, Va. Davis said she received a collection notice in February for $496 - for a ticket issued three years ago in East Baltimore. But Davis claims she hasn't visited Baltimore in 15 years and never owned the car, an Isuzu, listed on the notice Linebarger sent. She tried to protest to the city, but couldn't find anyone to take her call in city government.
"I was so frustrated, I thought was going to have a stroke," Davis said.
Raymond, the city collections official, said he hasn't heard of people who were misidentified by Linebarger. But he acknowledged that the tracking methods that the city and the collections agency use can be different.
Whereas the city will send late notices to a person's last address on file with the state MVA, Linebarger will use other databases to find a current address, Raymond said. If people believe the notice they received is completely in error, they should call Linebarger, he said.
"If it is an issue, it's something that would happen very infrequently," Raymond said.
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