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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

After a year, scofflaw effort still not in gear

During our senior year of college, my friend Hanna became a scofflaw.

She regularly parked illegally near the dormitory that housed the newspaper office, in an unmarked space she called the Editor’s Spot. Whenever campus security took notice, which was often, she treated the ticket they left on her dashboard like junk mail, blithely tossing it into the trash without so much as a second glance.

“Are you sure you can get away with this?” I asked her one day.

“Of course,” she said, “because I’m graduating.”

But Hanna was wrong.

The college did manage to collect at least some of the money Hanna owed, though neither of us can remember exactly how they did it. My guess is that when Hanna attempted to donate her matriculation fee to our class gift, the money was intercepted by the school and re-directed toward what was by then a substantial debt. It took an entire year, but Hanna eventually learned that parking tickets are no joke.

As someone whose entire adulthood has been spent living and working in cities, this is a lesson I’ve been forced to learn time and time again. (More on this in a bit.) There have been tickets I’ve forgotten to pay, and tickets I ignored because I believed they were unjust, but I couldn’t avoid them forever. Because unless you want to live in fear of having your car towed away or a collection agency coming after you, you have to pay your parking tickets.

Unless you live in Schenectady, apparently.

How else to explain the city’s lackadaisical attitude toward parking enforcement? Frankly, I was astonished to learn that so far this year the police department has failed to bring in any money from parking scofflaws — who owe the city an estimated $2.3 million — despite announcing plans for a crackdown last October. At that time, officials budgeted for $235,000 in revenue from scofflaws. Instead, they got nothing.

I’m not the only person baffled by this situation.

“We discussed this during the budget discussions last year,” a noticeably irritated city Councilwoman Denise Brucker told me. “We assumed there was going to be some forward movement on the issue. … We have an entire parking division. We thought they were going to be on top of this, and they weren’t.”

Officials are promising next year will be different.

They say bureaucratic problems delayed the crackdown on scofflaws and have recently been resolved; a big part of the challenge involved figuring out how to share private data such as names and dates of birth with the Ohio company that’s handling collections. According to Sgt. Patrick Morris, two patrol vehicles are now equipped with plate readers containing unpaid ticket information, which will make it easier for police to locate scofflaws.

“This is a new approach for us,” Morris said.

I don’t want to downplay the difficulty of implementing a new system, but the city had a year to figure this out, which is plenty of time.

And it’s not like cracking down on scofflaws is this unheard-of thing nobody has ever done before.

You don’t even have to leave the Capital Region to find municipalities, such as Albany and Saratoga Springs, that take parking tickets seriously and have seen overall collections increase. Albany expects to bring in $2.75 million in parking fines next year, while Schenectady expects a mere $600,000. Yes, Albany is a bigger city, but is it that much bigger?

I’m also having a hard time understanding why Schenectady doesn’t use the yellow clamp known as the boot to get scofflaws to pay up. The boot, which essentially immobilizes your car, is highly effective; people who have had their cars booted tend to speak of the experience in a hushed, shamed tone of voice, as if to say, “Can you believe I was one of those deadbeats with a boot on my car?”

At least, this is how I sound whenever I talk about the time my car was booted in Albany years ago.

If memory serves, I had two unpaid parking tickets, at least one of which I believed was completely absurd. But no matter; One morning I stepped outside and was shocked to discover a boot on my car. What followed was an unpleasant series of events that involved walking downtown and handing the city of Albany hundreds of dollars so I could drive to work. All the while, I felt like I had a big scarlet D on my forehead — D for deadbeat — and swore nothing like this would ever happen again.
And it hasn’t.

Having my car booted was a learning experience, which is why I now find myself in the curious position of advocating for an enforcement mechanism that inspires widespread dread. Every time I drive through Albany’s congested Center Square neighborhood I see at least one booted car. My guess is most of those people get up the next morning and hand the city a sizable chunk of change.
Morris said Schenectady tows scofflaws with two or more unpaid parking tickets, which certainly sounds like a deterrent, if the tactic is widely used.

In any case, getting money from scofflaws is not impossible. What’s required is the will to do it. Will Schenectady finally begins holding scofflaws accountable? We’ll get our answer next year, when the budget for 2015 is released.

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