The city is about to begin an amnesty program for parking ticket scofflaws. But after Oct. 1, unpaid tickets will mean profound implications for drivers.
Mark Lyons, Sarasota’s parking manager, says the city is owed more than $700,000 in unpaid parking fines and is about to embark on a statewide search for those funds, backed with the power to stop the renewal of license tags and driver’s licenses by those who haven’t paid up.
Between now and the fall, Lyons will drop the late fees under a Parking Citation Amnesty Program. But after Oct. 1, watch out.
“We’re going to alert the [Florida] Department of Motor Vehicles to halt the renewal of tags and licenses,” he told the City Commission July 2. “And we’re going to full use of the vehicle immobilization policy.”
That means if you have $50 or more in outstanding fines and late fees, don’t be surprised to find a boot on your front wheel after a leisurely downtown lunch. The problem could be one $35 ticket with a $15 late fee — or two unpaid $25 tickets.
Lyons plans to create a database of outstanding tickets going back to 2002. Later this month, you can check online or call to see if your license plate is encumbered, though he said July 2 that the website and telephone number had not been finalized yet.
Lyons expects the new phone line will get a workout. “People are going to call and say, ‘I paid that ticket. I remember paying that ticket,’” he said. “So we’ll go back and check.”
Other problems might be teenage drivers who didn’t want their parents to know they received tickets, so they threw them away. Or pranksters walking down the street, snatching tickets off windshields for fun. Or the visitors from Palatka, perhaps, who laughed at the thought of paying a Sarasota ticket.
The city gets the last laugh when the scofflaw tries to renew his tag or driver’s license, and a clerk smiles sweetly and says, “Until you pay your parking fines, I can’t renew you.”
“I’ve checked with several cities across the state, and it’s working,” said Lyons of such a program. “Unpaid tickets have statewide implications.”
Even out-of-date tag numbers won’t stop the collection effort. Florida issues new plates every 10 years, whereas it previously issued them every five years. Therefore, a plate number from 2002 could have been replaced in 2007 and again in 2012. But a representative of Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates’ office says staff will be happy to cooperate with Lyons to track down the scofflaws’ old plate numbers.
Still, “We know there will be some tickets that simply are not collectable,” said Lyons. “But we’ll try.”
Uncollectable tickets may be turned over to a collection agency, but Lyons isn’t confident that is cost-effective.
Lyons wants to prepare people for the new, hard-nosed collection policy by giving them two months to pay outstanding tickets without the late fees. But after Oct. 1, no more Mr. Nice Guy. “These are changes that make sense,” he said.
The search for cash is driven, in part, by the City Commission’s rejection of paid parking. Lyons’ department’s parking enforcement efforts cost the city about $1 million per year. One of the rationales for parking meters was that they would produce funding for parking enforcement. Another was to create faster turnover in parking spaces.
With paid parking a dead issue, Lyons needs to find other funding mechanisms. The only one left is increasing the collection rate for tickets. He says about two people out of 10 don’t pay their tickets, leading to that $700,000 backlog in fines.
The amnesty program should be up and running in the next couple of weeks. He expects people with no outstanding tickets to call, making sure they’re ticket-free. And he expects sob stories from the proverbial little old ladies who would never leave a parking ticket unpaid.
“It’s going to be staff intensive for awhile, handling that phone,” he said. “We’ll give everybody a fair shake before we move ahead. It’s going to be a fair amount of labor.”
Lyons added, “This is a one-time offer. … Anything older than 120 days is eligible for the waiving of the late fee. It’s an opportunity for people to clear up their problems” before the new and tougher enforcement begins Oct. 1.