December 12, 2013 in City

Spokane pursues scofflaw parkers

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Five Spokane drivers have ignored the city’s parking laws with abandon, each collecting more than 200 tickets.

The sum of all those violations exceeds $30,000 in fines.

In hopes of collecting some of that money, the city is about to employ an old remedy.

After a 26-year absence, parking boots will return to the streets of Spokane next summer. Parking agents with a get-tough mandate and expanded authority will immobilize the cars of prolific parking offenders with the steel wheel traps. The most brazen will have their cars towed and impounded.

Spokane’s scofflaw ordinance, passed unanimously by the City Council on Monday, follows a trend among cities in the region growing tired of turning a blind eye to problem parkers racking up thousands of dollars in overdue tickets.

There are 85,000 unpaid parking tickets on the city’s books; if paid, they would net the city $4 million.

Seattle passed a similar ordinance more than two years ago, and results there in collecting overdue fines and cutting down on repeat parking offenders bode well for the program in Spokane.

Municipal court records indicate more than 2,000 of Spokane’s outstanding citations belong to 10 people, all of whom have accrued more than 40 times the number of tickets (four) that now authorize the city to use a boot, a device that locks to the wheel of a car to prevent the vehicle from being driven. After eight overdue tickets, the city may impound the car.

The list of top offenders indicates how difficult it has been for the city to get people to pay. Records indicate many of those listed by the court live and work in Spokane and downtown. There’s no discernible pattern in their employment.

A 45-day window will be given to offenders to settle their debts before boots are deployed. Under the law, offenders will be able to work out a payment plan with the municipal court that enables them to retrieve their car after promising to follow a fee schedule.

The parking revisions are among the most sweeping in the city since the use of boots was ended on Jan. 1, 1988. The city’s Finance Department then cited excessive costs as the reason to mothball the city’s 30 boots after the state ordered parking tickets to be handled by the municipal court rather than City Hall.

The city says the boots were held in storage until the early 1990s, when they were listed as surplus equipment and sold. Dave Steele, a city planner who helped draft the new parking laws, said Spokane will look to buy 15 new devices, though they won’t be flashy.

“The goal of the city is to stay as low-tech as possible,” Steele said.

At the time boot use was stopped, city officials were also concerned about a legal challenge to the boot that threatened to derail parking enforcement. Those fears appear to have been assuaged by the widespread passage of scofflaw ordinances in recent years. Boise, Olympia and Seattle all have laws targeting their worst parking offenders.

Tyler Johnson, director of parking services in Boise, said the city towed four cars last week under its ordinance, which enables towing after five unpaid tickets but does not use boots.

“The tow is a lot cleaner,” Johnson said, adding the city didn’t have to keep track of its equipment clamped to the wheels of parked cars lining the streets. Boise’s frequent offenders have not amassed nearly the amount of outstanding tickets as parkers in Spokane. According to Johnson’s records, the highest number of unpaid tickets for one person is 18.

Spokane’s ordinance more closely resembles one passed by Seattle two summers ago, where parking offenders have the same four/eight ticket threshold; boots are used; and scofflaws have the choice of setting up a fine payment schedule.

According to a report Seattle issued one year after the law was passed, the scofflaw list and booting procedure cut down on repeat parking offenders. The city announced it had collected $2.8 million from repeat parking offenders and reduced the number of people who had four or more outstanding parking tickets in collections by about 7 percent. There was a slight increase in drivers with three or fewer tickets.

Seattle officials estimated at the time they were identifying and booting about half of those on their scofflaw list, citing out-of-town drivers and vehicles no longer on the roads as the offenders not reached.

Spokane officials have said booting and towing will likely begin in the middle of 2014, after they have sent notices to those on the scofflaw list and given them time to pay their tickets.

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