South Portland’s new carrot-and-stick approach to parking fines is paying dividends and may serve as a model for other cash-strapped communities.

In the five weeks after the city’s parking ticket amnesty program took effect at the end of December, residents paid about $8,700 in overdue parking fines, twice what would typically be collected in five weeks.

The amnesty allows residents to pay overdue fines at their face value instead of the doubled fines that kick in after two weeks.

That’s the carrot. The stick? Residents can’t register their vehicles at City Hall unless they pay their outstanding tickets.

“We’ve had a steady stream of collections since we sent the notices” announcing the new policy, said finance director Greg L’Heureux. “We felt that this amnesty program was a good way of getting this instituted into the registration.”

South Portland has just over $100,000 worth of outstanding parking tickets, twice that if you count the doubled fines.

Many of those tickets go to residents who violate the city’s ban on overnight on-street parking during the winter. Many others are given out in the Maine Mall area during busy shopping periods.

“A big portion of it is nonresidents, where you really don’t have much of an ability to collect those,” L’Heureux said.

In South Portland, fines range from $15 for parking at a bus stop to $100 for parking in a handicapped-only space. Overnight parking on the street during the winter will result in a $20 ticket.

City officials said they could not determine how much of the outstanding parking fines came from residents and how much came from nonresidents.

The Portland Press Herald filed a Freedom of Access request Tuesday for the names and addresses of people with outstanding parking tickets. The city attorney said the release of such information would violate the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.

Parking ordinances must be enforced to be effective, said Police Chief Ed Googins. “If people think they can ignore the ticket, it doesn’t stop the violations.”

But the crackdown has a big flaw. It applies only at City Hall. People who register their vehicles online or at the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles can skirt the requirement because the state does not compel people to pay municipal parking tickets.

“That seems basically unfair,” said City Councilor Gerald Jalbert, who unsuccessfully opposed the registration requirement but likes the amnesty. He said he hasn’t heard from any residents about the issue.

The city’s letter to scofflaws announcing the amnesty, which runs through the end of February, says only that residents will not be able to register their vehicles if they have unpaid tickets. It makes no mention of the ways to sidestep the fines.

Most of the payments are coming in the mail, and very few are coming from people who discover their outstanding tickets when they go to register their cars.

Ryan O’Connor said he was one of the unlucky out-of-towners who got a parking ticket for overnight parking on the street.

“The part that bothers me is, for people like me who don’t live locally, who generally do try and follow the rules, there’s no sign” warning about the parking ban, said O’Connor, who lives north of Augusta. He said police waived the ticket, because it was his only one.

O’Connor said he thinks the amnesty is a good idea but he doesn’t like the idea of blocking registrations for outstanding tickets.

“To potentially not allow vehicles to be registered, that seems extreme to me,” he said.

“I would probably be totally irritated if I went in to register my car and was presented with the notion that I would also have to pay outstanding tickets,” said Souh Portland resident Tiffany Tappan, who said she paid her lone parking ticket from last year on time before it went up. “But in theory, shouldn’t I have just paid them to begin with?” he said.

South Portland patterned its registration requirement after Lewiston, which for several years has required anyone with $100 or more worth of parking tickets to pay before registering their car.

“The city issued about 9,000 tickets over each of the past two years, worth more than $130,000 in each (year),” said Lewiston police Sgt. David Chick. Lewiston also refers outstanding parking tickets to a collection agency.

The city’s collection rate has been 63 percent and 58 percent in each of the last two years, respectively.

Because fines go up after two weeks, Lewiston has actually collected a little more than $130,000 from tickets written in 2011, Chick said.

South Portland police issue tickets but rarely have time to call a tow truck to haul away a vehicle belonging to someone who has outstanding tickets, Googins said.

Portland, by contrast, has $3.8 million in outstanding parking tickets dating back roughly seven years, even though motorists pay 70 percent of the tickets issued, officials said.

The city can boot cars with four or more tickets, charging $50 to remove the boot, plus payment of outstanding tickets.

There are now 8,658 vehicles registered in Portland with enough tickets to get a boot.

The city stops short of requiring residents to pay their tickets before registering their cars, in part because the city can’t require the same of nonresidents.

“If you enforce for vehicles in your municipality, that’s sort of punitive for Portland residents,” said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg. “That’s why we’ve gone to the state and made the appeal that this really should be statewide.”

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a former legislator, said the state has refused to suspend vehicle registrations for a non-state function.

“That’s the core reason we don’t suspend registrations or prevent registration of a motor vehicle, because it has nothing to do with highway safety,” Dunlap said.

Longtime Bangor City Councilor Patricia Blanchette said she plans to ask her colleagues to consider tying registrations to parking tickets.

Blanchette said she doesn’t know how much is outstanding in Bangor — though she believes the amount is “huge.”

She said the city must collect whatever revenue it is owed, particularly in light of state budget proposals to shift expenses to municipalities.

“We have cut it down considerably,” she said, “because we do have the boot and we’re not bashful about using it.”

 

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com