Ticket and Run
To Israel Corporan parking tickets are part of the South Beach lifestyle. Although he pays the City of Miami Beach $260 for a yearly parking permit, it can take hours to find a slot near his apartment at 727 Collins Ave., he complains. So Corporan has concluded that breaking the law is cheaper than buying an overpriced pass. "Even if you pay, you're not guaranteed parking," Corporan says in hurried Spanish while slurping soup in his penthouse. "So it really doesn't benefit me to do it [the city's way.]"
The Dominican carpenter has amassed more than 110 unpaid citations during his thirteen years in the nightlife district. The first 60-plus were slapped on a 1986 Chevrolet Camaro that the county towed in 1993, he says. "I saw the meter maid preparing to tow the car so I moved it into a friend's parking spot in a nearby building," Corporan recalls. "And they still took the car. I did not go down to protest because I thought they would take me too."
Figuring the Camaro settled the score with the violations bureau, Corporan bought a 1986 Chevrolet Celebrity. In just two years, 1994 and 1995, he received another 51 infractions. Total due: $2472.
Fearing another tow Corporan visited the county Parking Violations Bureau to negotiate a payment plan. The answer was all or nothing, he claims. He chose nothing. Then the 47-year-old did what any upstanding citizen would do: He put the car in his wife Rosa's name, obtained a new license plate, and continued his outlaw ways. Now when officers check his tag on their computers, the outstanding tickets do not register. Rosa ensures new tickets are paid on time.
"If we both ruin our record, then we won't be able to drive," Corporan says. "I heard they stopped writing tickets for parking in loading zones. I now use the loading zones sometimes."
Roughly 750,000 parking tickets are issued in Miami-Dade County every year. A New Times analysis of five years of records held by the county's Parking Violations Bureau shows that only about half of all citations are paid within a year. If one considers only infractions more than two years old, twenty percent -- one in five -- remains unpaid. Thus, as of a few weeks ago, the county was trying to collect on 935,744 tickets issued from July 1994 to July 1999.
And numbers are rising. In 1992 the county estimated that $20 million in fines were uncollected. Despite a get-tough campaign in 1996 that cost almost $1 million, the past-due total has been climbing about five percent per year. Today the figure stands at $27 million.
That amount could pay for at least five garages like the 400-space, five-million-dollar structure that the City of Miami is building on Mary Street in Coconut Grove. The money could also be used to hire dozens of additional school crossing guards or help the cash-strapped city improve its financial portfolio. Ironically Miami has drawn sharp criticism from business owners for approving a twenty percent tax on all public parking fees that took effect September 1.
Miami Beach is the undisputed king of parking tickets, the New Times survey shows. From October 1, 1998, to July 31, 1999, the island's cops and parking officers penned 202,156 citations, accounting for about one-third of all those issued in the county. Not far behind is Miami. The city's Off-Street Parking Authority, together, with the Miami Police Department issued 162,151 citations, or a little more than one-fourth of the county's infractions.
Miami-Dade County is the third worst offender, with 110,405 and Coral Gables is fourth, with 81,250. The leftover twelve percent is divided among the remaining municipalities, with tiny Biscayne Park bringing up the rear: The city issued seventeen tickets during the period.
Because the Beach writes the most citations, it figures more of its tickets are outstanding. From July 1994 to July 1999, 231,479 Miami Beach tickets remained unpaid, totaling approximately $6,840,318. Those who receive citations in the oceanfront city are also among the worst when it comes to paying up. Fully one-fourth run out on them.
The top, well, ticketholder in Miami-Dade is Florida license plate number PST61N. Neither state nor city databases list an owner for the 1995 white Chevrolet, which boasts 72 violations. Total owed the county: $3627. Most tickets were issued on the 800 block of West Avenue in Miami Beach between 1995 and 1997, for parking in prohibited areas and having an expired license plate.
Runner-up in the unpaid-ticket sweepstakes is Denine Polen with 68. She lists a post office as her mailing address and has no listed phone number. New Times could not track her down for comment. Except for Corporan, who is last on the scofflaw top-ten list, New Times was unable to contact the other leading ticket cheats. Why? Half list Miami Beach addresses, but have apparently moved before a reporter visited. The others were out-of-state visitors who chose to ignore the tickets. They may know the county is powerless to collect.
A closer look at the database reveals some details of the typical ticket reprobate. He lives on South Beach, drives a Ford, and receives his citation between 10:00 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Where does this lawbreaker do his thing? No surprise here. Eight of the top-ten hot spots are on South Beach. Eighth Street between Washington and Collins avenues is the number-one locale.
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."
As parking in the city gets more expensive, things may get even hotter for Hess, Borjas, and company. This week Miami started collecting a twenty percent surcharge on the estimated 56,000 parking spaces within the city limits. The only exceptions: residential property, meters on the street, the Port of Miami, and two lots at Miami International Airport.
The city estimates the tax will generate six to eight million dollars per year, which will be dedicated to reducing property taxes and building the city's cash reserves. Coconut Grove attorney Louis Terminello fears the tax may not produce the promised revenues. He predicts that many potential visitors will be put off by overpriced parking.
"If you make it so expensive that it is prohibitive, they are going to go to South Miami, Coral Gables, et cetera," Terminello opines. "Someone needs to find a balance in this area."
One way to raise money that would be far better than a new tax, Terminello and others suggest, is to collect more overdue parking fines. The city could raise up to one million dollars per year that way.
Clerk of the courts Harvey Ruvin may have at least a partial answer for Terminello. Although the former county commissioner and avid environmentalist can't overturn the city parking tax, Ruvin aims to improve collections. "There are a lot of dollars out there to be had at a time when dollars are scarce," he comments. The clerk describes the typical scofflaw attitude as "They don't have a hook on me so they can't touch me."
So this past spring Ruvin convinced state legislators to empower his office to hire private companies to badger ticket cheaters. Among their likely tactics: harassing phone calls at dinnertime, threatening letters, and maybe even a blemish on a credit report.
Under Ruvin's measure, if collectors become involved, drivers will pay a 40 percent premium on late parking fines and vehicle owners will get one warning letter. It will likely take effect soon, Ruvin says. Companies are expected to begin bidding for the contract by the end of 1999. It's still unclear whether more than one collection agency will be chosen.
Ruvin's office is powerless to cross state lines or national borders to enforce penalties for unpaid infractions, but the bill collectors would not be. Indeed tourists owe about one-fourth of the $25 million in unpaid fines. Ruvin is aware of Miami's fragile image with tourists, so he promises to go after scofflaws in "a sensitive and personal way."
In the future collection of parking fines could be become big business, Ruvin adds. As the county's population grows, the number of cars will increase and so will the number of outstanding citations. "We have had 600,000 people move to South Florida in recent years," says Ruvin. "And more are on their way."
RELATED STORIES by Jose Luis Jiménez
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