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University City has never been burdened with the reputation of being a diligent bill collector. Since 2004, in fact, 45 percent of the more than 40,000 parking tickets its police department has issued have gone unpaid. Meanwhile, some residents haven't paid their garbage bills since 1972.
"There's been this attitude that payment is not necessary," says Petree Eastman, assistant to the city manager, and the architect of U. City's new revenue-collection plan. "But we can no longer afford not to collect. There are going to be serious negative consequences for breaking the law. That's our new mantra."
Faced with a $1.5 million deficit that resulted in the June layoffs of a dozen employees, U. City officials began looking for new revenue sources, only to discover that they've been losing $100,000 a year from unpaid parking tickets. "We were outraged," Eastman recalls, "especially considering the city's revenue situation."
Spurred to action, the city overhauled its parking-ticket system. "Currently, we don't have a system that gives us automatic alerts of repeat violators," explains U. City deputy police chief, Ernest Green. "We write the tickets out by hand and place a copy on the car's windshield. If an officer remembers a car that has a ticket already, he can do a computer search to see if the violation is habitual."
Starting in July, U. City will invest in a new $25,000 computerized parking-ticket system similar to the one used in Clayton. It also plans to hire two part-time civilian parking control attendants who will patrol the Loop all day, every day, armed with hand-held computers that will print out tickets and track parking violations.
In a further attempt to cut its deficit, U. City also plans to raise fines for parking tickets. Parking at an expired meter will now cost $15 instead of $10, and the cost of wrongfully occupying a handicapped spot will double from $50 to $100. Also, U. City will slap the Denver boot on any vehicle with four or more unpaid parking tickets. Removal of the boot will cost $50, plus full payment of all outstanding tickets.
"It can be very expensive," Eastman notes. "After 14 days, we'll double the amount of the ticket, and after 45 days, we'll triple it." Parking tickets can add up quickly. Some repeat violators, Eastman says, owe as much as $1,500. "We expect a substantial increase in tickets," she says. "It will be interesting to see how many boots we see. It's a big deterrent."
The Denver boot, trivia aficionados will appreciate, is named for its city of origin. It was invented in 1953 by Frank Marugg, a violinist for the Denver Symphony Orchestra and freelance inventor. The infamous boot is an orange-colored metal clamp that fits over a car tire and is held in place with a padlock, rendering the vehicle immobile.
Local merchants don't think the specter of the boot will keep customers from shopping in the Delmar Loop. "If the boot's for four or more tickets, regulars should know not to park illegally," says Mia Kannapell, a clerk at Rag-O-Rama.
Because of the sheer quantity of outstanding parking tickets, U. City has decided to forget the past and focus on the future. "We're not going to be able to dig up the handwritten tickets from 2006 and 2005 and 2004 and enter them into the system," says Eastman. "Realistically, we'd have to hire an army to do that much data entry. It's not going to happen."
As a result, motorists with glove compartments crammed with crumpled up parking tickets need not worry — not yet, anyway. In about two weeks, the tickets with increased rates will come back from the printer. When the new computer system is installed this summer, all tickets from January onward will be entered in by hand.
U. City has also lost an estimated $1.8 million from homeowners who haven't paid their garbage bills in years. Instead of cutting off service, though, the city sent out letters informing residents that liens had been placed on their property. "We were afraid that if we cut off service, trash would accumulate all over the city," Eastman says. "We were afraid people would dump it in the parks or burn it or let it accumulate in the basement."
Later this month, U. City will start practicing tough love by threatening to withhold garbage pickup from delinquent account holders. First, though, it will offer an amnesty period until March 15, wherein homeowners who come forward to pay their bills will be forgiven half the interest. Then on April 1, the city will stop collecting trash from residents who still haven't paid. To avoid the problem of garbage accumulation, the city will require deadbeats to haul their trash to the landfill themselves and present the receipts each week at city hall. Eastman is confident this program will work. "Realistically, would you want to haul trash every day?" she asks.
Even if the U. City government manages to recoup the nearly $2 million it's owed from parking and garbage, officials still hope to find fresh revenue streams. "We can't raise taxes," Eastman says. "The city is trying to be as creative and diligent as possible. It has few choices when it comes to revenue."
One potential gold mine seems to be the free municipal lots just north of Delmar. "We were blown away by how much the lots are used in the evening and how much money they could generate," Eastman says. U. City officials conducted a study last fall that showed that if they charged $2 per vehicle between 4 p.m. and midnight, the city could raise $1 million per year. But the proposal has been unpopular with Loop merchants, who are afraid the pay lots would scare customers away.