A Fine Time

That five-year-old parking ticket could get you towed

The city courts building on Olive Street is less than majestic. No Law & Order-style oak walls, nary a decorative accent or any real authoritative ambiance. It is a bland, dry-walled space with low ceilings, rattling windows, linoleum floors and a worn aluminum gate separating the defendants from the judge.

Late last month, ten people awaited the chance to argue their case in front of Newton McCoy, a slight, mustachioed jurist with a receding hairline and a forgiving demeanor.

Each day the same judicial monotony ensues. A court clerk calls out names, and one by one the defendants approach the judge to plead their case. A man begs Judge McCoy to give him another month to fulfill his community-service sentence; another claims he was insured when he was pulled over, although he still can't prove it. A woman picked up on a public drunkenness charge hopes for mercy. It won't happen again, she promises. McCoy smiles, nods and grants her probation.

Another day, another docket. And one big, recurring headache for defendants like Heather Highland, who last month stood before city court judge Joseph Murphy to complain about her parking tickets. The 28-year-old Highland had been getting letters from the Parking Violations Bureau threatening to turn her case over to a collection agency if she didn't pony up the money for four unpaid tickets. The only problem: She paid two of the tickets months ago and had the other two dismissed.

Still, the pesky warnings kept coming, saying Highland was on the hook for the tickets, the associated court costs, and the fines and penalties that had now rocketed to $318. A frustrated Highland went to traffic court and presented proof: her canceled check and the letter of dismissal.

Her case is not an isolated one.

"It's a problem across the board with us," concedes court administrator Dimitri Gay. He says that judges have been haggling over the issue since the middle of 2004, when a new ticket-collection system went into effect. "It's a monumental resource drain for us to deal with. We've got bigger fish to fry -- such as prostitution and alcohol-related violations that are coming to the court on a regular basis -- that obviously need far more attention than to cue up a judge's time to argue over a $25 parking ticket."

Administrative judge Margaret Walsh also acknowledges the problem. "We've received a lot of complaints about bureaucratic inconsistencies in the system," she says.

Over the years, the revenue-starved City of St. Louis has left millions of dollars on the table because of hit-or-miss collecting procedures. Looking to find a way to make good on more than 80,000 unpaid tickets that were languishing on the books, the city last March followed the lead of other large municipalities and contracted the duties of collection and enforcement out to Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services (ACS).

So far it has been a profitable marriage -- even if it hasn't soothed some St. Louisans' bureaucratic headaches.

"Our ticket collections' [success rate] are in excess of 65 percent -- and they weren't that high before," says Steve Baker, director of planning and support service for the city treasurer's office. "We've got a 15 percent increase since this started, so we've seen more money come in."

St. Louis, which issues about 600,000 parking violations each year, has doubled its parking-ticket income, gaining $1.5 million in fiscal year 2004 -- or twice what was netted in 2003, says Baker. At the time the city hired ACS, more than $12 million in unpaid tickets languished on the books. Today the amount is $9.5 million. Two-thirds of the money generated in fines is used by the treasury department to build and operate parking garages; the rest is turned over to the city's general fund.

After meter maids write the ticket, ACS handles the rest. The ticket automatically goes into a database that ACS manages; the contractor operates the server that processes payments and receives $2.31 from each ticket paid. If parking scofflaws admit guilt, they pay the fine: $10 for a simple meter violation. If the ticket goes unpaid for fifteen days, the fine is raised to $20. After 45 days, a letter is sent bearing the unhappy news that the amount has again doubled and is now $40.

There is no statute of limitations on parking tickets. The city can collect regardless of how long ago the violation occured.

Since 1975, four unpaid parking tickets have meant a trip to the city's tow yard and $200 to get the car out of impound. Prior to the contract with ACS, city workers trolled the streets, printouts in hand, searching for license numbers -- often with little success. But now ACS' patrolling trucks have computers that, once a plate number is entered, provide up-to-the-minute information to determine whether someone has reached the four-ticket limit.

The new technology appears to be working -- the number of cars towed each day has more than doubled. "With the old system, if we got ten or twelve [tows] a day, that was a good day," says Baker. "Now we get twenty or twenty-five. Because of the automation and computer access, we're not limited to running around to different areas every day looking for areas that are heavily populated with scofflaws."

Last week St. Louis added another weapon to its scofflaw-catching arsenal: hand-held computers that allow the city's 24 parking officers to quickly print out a ticket. The computers, Baker explains, will let the officers know whether a vehicle belongs to someone with four or more unpaid tickets.

Despite all the new technology, problems persist. Fines are paid, but the information gets lost in the shuffle. Contested tickets are ignored, and collection threats are mailed to citizens like Heather Highland. Baker says erroneous payment notices constitute only 1 percent of the unpaid notices sent out. The culprit, he says, is the city-run Regional Justice Information Service (REJIS), the regional data-processing center that serves governmental agencies in the greater St. Louis area. One of REJIS' responsibilities is to reconcile the city courts' information with the treasury office's. When a person pays his or her parking fines, or contests tickets, that information is supposed to be forwarded to ACS.

"The information that was given to us via REJIS wasn't accurate," Baker claims.

Brett Peze, ACS' St. Louis project manager, says that in the initial stages of implementing the new system, a few data-transfer kinks appeared. "We did have some instances where we were not receiving information in a timely manner from the courts regarding dismissed tickets or tickets that were paid at court."

"When in doubt, blame the computers," laughs Paul Newhouse, general manager of REJIS. "Our role is peripheral these days," he adds. "But we suspect that the complaints are indeed valid."

Judge Margaret Walsh says many of the glitches have been corrected, adding: "It's not going to be the nightmare that it has been in the past."

But don't tell that to Heather Highland. "I'm still getting collection notices telling me I owe money. I just throw them away."

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