More than $7.5 million in Austin parking tickets are unpaid

Parking ticket issued in Austin. (KXAN Photo)
Parking ticket issued in Austin. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- The pain of parking and the threat of parking fines affect just about every person travelling to downtown Austin.

Heather Kilgore says parking downtown is such an issue it requires its own set of plans. “Parking absolutely dictates every plan that you make. Evening time, even sometimes during the daytime,” Kilgore said. “Do we Uber? Are we going to pay for parking?”

To keep parking spaces circulating, the Austin Transportation Department writes about 150,000 tickets a year. Drivers find those citations slipped underneath a windshield wiper. Those revenues go straight to the city’s general fund to pay for services, but not everyone is paying up. A KXAN investigation has found more than $7.5 million in outstanding fines. In one case, KXAN found a single parking offender racked up 119 unpaid tickets. He still owes more than $5,800, according to the city.

"We do have people who have a number of tickets, and it quickly escalates and can get out of control if you don't handle them timely,” Municipal Court hearing officer Samuel Long told KXAN.

Long said that he’s satisfied with the city’s current program to collect on fines; nevertheless, people are dodging fines that could help pay for city transportation.

Drivers have about 30 days to pay parking fines or have a hearing to dispute the ticket. The court then sends a “last chance” letter. After six months, if a ticket hasn’t been paid, it goes to collections.

"I don't like to leave anything on the table, if it belongs to the city. I mean, if those people are liable for it, they should pay it. We do run into other problems, though,” Long said. “Unlike a criminal case where you have what's called a PID where a case is identified on a person, parking tickets are based on the license plate on a vehicle."

Under city law, parking tickets are civil rather than criminal violations. That can make it tougher to collect, Long said.

The city can increase a fine by 30 percent. It can also boot and tow a vehicle, but the city seldom takes those measures. Since the start of 2016, the city has booted 131 vehicles and towed eight.

"I don't know that I could suggest anything further that they could do,” Long said. “I mean booting someone's car and stopping it in its place or towing it away is pretty tough."

City (in the past two years) Vehicles Booted Vehicles Towed
Fort Worth, Texas Nearly 200 15
Jacksonville, Fla. 1,000 160
Dallas, Texas 786 1,115
Austin, Texas 131 8
San Jose, Calif. 0 0

Despite having some of the highest amounts of tows and boots of any city contacted by KXAN, Dallas is currently owed more than $106 million in unpaid parking tickets.

 

Parking Enforcement

No one ever wants to see Lyndon Meris hovering over their car. That's because he's one of the three dozen employees who writes parking tickets for the Transportation Department.

KXAN followed Meris during one of his shifts this fall. In less than an hour, Meris issued hundreds of dollars of parking tickets for expired pay station receipts, no receipt displayed, violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and parking in a commercial zone, among other infractions.

The purpose of the tickets, Meris said, is turning over the city’s limited amount of parking spaces.

Austin Transportation Department Enforcement Supervisor Lyndon Meris issuing a parking ticket. (KXAN Photo)
Austin Transportation Department Enforcement Supervisor Lyndon Meris issuing a parking ticket. (KXAN Photo)

"We just want to make sure that, you know, everyone is safe. They're parking safely. They're not creating hazards. We want to keep everything moving, mobility at its best,” Meris said.

After a ticket is issued, Austin Municipal Court take care of enforcing the fine. When the fines aren’t paid, the tickets go to collections, which are handled by the outside collections firm Municipal Services Bureau, or MSB.

An MSB spokesman said there is no “hammer” for enforcement of parking and red light camera citations, since there are no warrants for outstanding tickets. He said it is a rare occurrence for courts to choose to use boots and tows.

“MSB has consistently demonstrated strong competitive performance in major Texas markets, including Austin, Houston and Dallas,” the spokesman said.

Long said he is satisfied with MSB’s performance, and there is a limit to the city’s ability to collect on parking ticket fines. Most parking ticket cases do get handled, he said, and the city collects on more than 70 percent of the tickets within 90 days of being issued.

“Some things do become uncollectable. The vehicle changes hands and that’s really our means of enforcement, boot and tow, and if we are no longer able to, you know, boot the car, that really takes a little bit of the impetus out of our system,” Long said.

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