February 8, 2013

S. Portland strategy pulls in overdue parking fines

Other communities may follow South Portland's success with an amnesty and penalty approach.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

South Portland Police Officer Kevin Sager enters vehicle information into his computer to issue a ticket for an illegally parked car at the Maine Mall on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

South Portland Police Officer Kevin Sager writes tickets to illegally parked cars at the Maine Mall on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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