By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
Tucked away in a corner on the ground floor of a downtown Flagler Street building is the county's violations bureau. Manager Deborah Hess's large office window offers a view of a cramped facility with 36 employees, mostly women, processing paperwork and answering questions from irate members of the public. Surrounded by stacks of paper, law books, and copies of unpaid parking citations, Hess is sometimes the target of angry citizens.
"Always jacking me in the ass" is one of the more benign messages Hess has encountered. The words were written in the memo portion of a personal check sent by a driver paying off his fines.
The bureau's dirty brown carpet, tiny cubicles, and reception area the size of a walk-in closet haven't been updated since it opened in 1985. Until that time city governments were responsible for collecting on tickets issued within their borders. Because information wasn't shared among the cities, those who parked illegally could escape detection by spreading their malfeasance. Then clerk of the courts Richard Brinker figured a new department operating under his jurisdiction would be more efficient.
These days 140 parking enforcement agents, as well as city and county police issue the tickets, which are forwarded to the violations bureau for collection. About two-thirds of the payment is returned to the municipality that issued the ticket; the remainder is distributed to the county, a trust fund dedicated to school crossing guards, and an account that pays for parking enforcement. An estimated $20 million passes through the county bureau, which costs $1.373 million per year to run.
Records of all unpaid tickets are stored in the bureau's computers, which alert Hess and company to drivers who owe money. Authorities send a polite reminder letter to drivers with one or two overdue citations. They are tougher on those who have received more than three: The state blocks vehicle registration renewal until all tickets are paid. This year 26,156 drivers face a hold on their registration.
The penalty is more severe for those who don't pay either five tickets or even one handicapped parking citation; they join what Hess calls the scofflaw list. Judges sign impoundment orders and delinquents' cars can be towed, then sold at auction. If the vehicles do not fetch enough to cover the costs, drivers are liable for the remainder. The list is updated daily and downloaded each night to Autocite hand-held computers, which are used by parking enforcement officers. The small units, which resemble calculators, list the tag numbers of more than 12,000 scofflaws. The computers also catalogue stolen vehicles.
Each computer costs $3600. When the county bought 142 of them three years ago, the hardware cost more than $500,000 and other equipment such as software added to the total. While automation has allowed the bureau to reduce its staff by eight, it hasn't made a dent in reducing the number of outstanding parking tickets. In fact it has steadily increased.
Part of the problem is the haphazard nature of enforcement. Officers must find the ticket outlaws to bring them to justice. "If [an offending tag number] comes up in a routine check, then the impoundment order is enforced," Hess explains. "That's where the scofflaws are caught."
Dressed in a white shirt and blue polyester shorts, Albert Borjas, Miami Parking System enforcement officer, is making his rounds on a steamy Friday evening in Coconut Grove. While most of the oversexed, underdressed crowd plays, Borjas walks the business district six times. With his trusty Autocite computer in hand and sweatbands around his wrists, the barrel-chested nine-year veteran walks slowly, his dark eyes searching for the flashing red light of an expired meter. After just a few minutes he spots a recent-model gray Honda Accord illegally parked across from the Coconut Grove Playhouse. He dutifully inputs the license number into the gray box in his hand. A minute later it spits out a white-and-pumpkin-orange waterproof parking ticket.
Then he tucks an $18 tab under the windshield wiper and waxes philosophical. He gets no joy from writing tickets. He wishes drivers would feed the meter. The city benefits directly from meter fees, he says. The county siphons off part of the profit from tickets. "Besides, you're hurting these people when you write them a ticket," he adds.
One hour into his ten-hour shift, Borjas has written twenty citations. The city will garner $240 if the tickets are paid on time, he says. Borjas will receive $12, his hourly salary. He is one of nineteen City of Miami enforcement officers who swear they are not subject to quotas. Combined they issued 170,000 citations last fiscal year, generating $1.4 million in revenue for the city.
Borjas and his ilk are the strong arm of the parking violations bureau. Because parking citations are civil infractions, the cops can't issue an arrest warrant for drivers who fail to pay the fines. "People have driven on sidewalks to avoid getting towed," Borjas says. "Some people are willing to do anything."
It is not surprising that Borjas is unpopular with the public. A driver once attacked him with a garbage can as he ordered a tow truck to remove the man's vehicle from Calle Ocho. Another time someone glued shut the locks on his enforcement vehicle. Drivers have also screamed at him and pelted him with ice. "Maybe they are trying to cool me off," Borjas quips. "If they were trying to send me a message, they would be throwing knives and forks."