Her hair appointment took longer than expected and she didn't hear her phone alert her that her parking had expired. But, when she got back to her car a little over two hours later, all was well. She had escaped a common (and dreaded) Miami fate: Her car had not been towed, booted, or ticketed.
A week later, however, fate caught up with her.
Zavaleta received a "notice" in the mail stating that she had overstayed her allotted time, and now owed money to a private company called Professional Parking Management. Similar to a ticket from a red-light camera, the notice included two photos of Zavaleta's car: one entering the lot and one leaving, with a timestamp on each. The amount of time between her entry and exit exceeded the time she purchased on the lot's PayByPhone app by some 20 minutes. That infraction would cost her $85. A slew of fees and taxes — "State Sales Tax" ($3.15), the "Miami Parking Surcharge Tax" ($5.27), "Transaction Fee" ($3.99) — would add an extra $12.41, bringing the bill to $97.41. If she paid within 15 days, however, the "Reduced Charge" would total $57.41.
"I almost went online and paid it," Zavaleta says, "until I realized it wasn't from the city."
A quick Google search revealed hundreds of complaints on the Better Business Bureau's website about Professional Parking Management (PPM). She also found an installment of WSVN's "Help Me Howard" feature in which attorney Howard Finkelstein assists South Floridians in solving residents' legal quandaries. In that segment, which aired in March, Finkelstein discussed the case of a man who had recently received a ticket from PPM at a different Miami lot.
"Miami absolutely does not let a private business send you a citation," Finkelstein told viewers. "If you get one, do not pay it. Throw it in the garbage."
"So that's what I did," Zavaleta says.
Howard's advice, however, is outdated. Though private ticketing was indeed illegal in the City of Miami when the segment aired, that changed a month later, after parking-industry representatives persuaded the city commission that lot owners need a more effective way to enforce parking rules. The result was a new ordinance that legalizes private ticketing — as long as companies use, and avoid, certain language on their notices.
For drivers, the reversal has been confusing. In the five months since the city instituted the change, no media outlet has covered the issue and neither the city nor the Miami Parking Authority (MPA) has made an effort to educate residents.
Just as baffling to drivers is the fact that private lot owners use the same PayByPhone app the city parking authority uses and their signage is nearly identical. And because private tickets arrive by mail — and are costlier than $36 municipal tickets for overtime parking — the notices often send recipients down a rabbit hole of online research where they find scant (or misleading) information. Mostly, they're told the tickets are a scam. Others pay up without ever realizing the notices aren't government-issued.
Meanwhile, laws governing the enforcement of private tickets remain murky, but insiders say the new system is spreading fast owing to the ease of ticketing-by-camera and the ability to cite more drivers. That's because, previously, if you overstayed a meter, you might have gotten booted or towed. But, first, your vehicle had to be flagged and someone had to come do the job. Unless you significantly overstayed, you usually got lucky. With camera-run enforcement, you're guaranteed a ticket every time. And with PPM currently handling enforcement in 12 local lots — with roughly 36 more on the way — that means a lot more tickets.
Understanding how they work, and who's behind them, is the first step to avoid meeting your — increasingly likely — Miami parking fate.
The fact that a notice from a private company, with photos of her car and her full name, landed in her mailbox both surprised and unsettled her.
New RulesUntil two years ago, there were no private ticketing laws on the city's code books.
Then, in May of 2019, the commission passed an emergency order outlawing the practice. That order followed a Spanish-language report by Univision's Erika Carrillo, which aired on May 3 of that year and detailed how PPM had been placing paper tickets on windshields in private lots throughout the city. The company had not yet begun mailing tickets, and the ones they were handing out looked deceptively like government-issued violations. The tickets directed people to a website to pay the fines, which many did.
The commission's order created a new city ordinance, which stated that any privately issued "notice of violation, citation, ticket, or invoice is declared null, void, and unenforceable" and would result in a $500 fine, per ticket, to be issued — against the lot operator.
Univision aired a follow-up report the day the ban was passed, calling it a "victory for drivers in the City of Miami."
Fast-forward two years.
This past April, in response to lobbying from the parking industry, the Miami City Commission unanimously approved an update to that law. The amended ordinance — Chapter 35/Article VIII/Section 35-292 — eliminates penalties for lot operators and allows them to issue tickets as long as they don't call them a "violation, citation, or ticket." They also must include the following statement, in 14-point boldface type, on every notice: "This invoice is privately issued, is not issued by a governmental authority, and is not subject to civil or criminal penalties."
In the letter mailed to Jen Zavaleta, PPM called the ticket a "Parking Charge Notice," followed by large, red letters that read, "DO NOT IGNORE."
Only a municipality has the legal authority to collect parking fines and alter a violator's driving record for nonpayment. Yet many people who received “notices” from PPM have said on various online forums, including the Better Business Bureau website and Reddit, that they paid the charges because the company warns in its letters that failure to pay “may result in this matter being referred to collections and possible further legal action.”
How did PPM know where to send Zavaleta's "parking charge notice?"
The company's License Plate Recognition (LPR) cameras automatically crosscheck every plate with a lot's payment software. If the system determines a driver has overstayed on departure, PPM requests the vehicle owner's name and address from the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles department (FLHSMV).
Normally, under the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), it would be illegal for the FLHSMV to release a driver's personal information. But the act contains a number of exemptions that grant third parties access to driver data.
FLHSMV spokeswoman Jessica Kelleher says PPM doesn't have a so-called memorandum of understanding on file with her department, which would be required in order for PPM to access driver data.
But Kelleher says that PPM may be getting the data from another company that does have access to FLHSMV's database. That other company would be able to share the data with PPM as long as PPM qualifies under one of the DPPA's exemptions.
Though it's not clear exactly which exemption would apply, permissible uses include the operation of "private toll transportation facilities" and "recovering on a debt."
Reached by New Times, a PPM representative declined to specify exactly how the company obtains driver data. To do so, he said, "would disclose confidential trade secrets to our competitors and violate our nondisclosure agreements with our third-party vendors."
For Jen Zavaleta, though, the fact that a notice from a private company, with photos of her car and her full name, landed in her mailbox both surprised and unsettled her.
"It's a little creepy," she says.
Better Than the Alternative?While privately issued parking tickets are an unwelcome surprise to most residents, lot owners argue they're much better than booting and towing — for drivers and lot owners alike.
Booting has declined sharply since a 2018 City of Miami law set the maximum rate at $49.99 for removal of a boot on private property. Towing, meanwhile, requires employees, infrastructure, or a contract with an existing company. Both practices are also confrontational and often lead to verbal and physical altercations, calls to the police, and lawsuits.
Ticketing, lot owners say, allows them to enforce rules in a way that's safer, cheaper, and more convenient for everyone.
Andrew Mirmelli, who owns several lots and parking-related companies across Miami-Dade County, spoke at a June 2019 Miami City Commission meeting in favor of legalizing private ticketing.
"People should seriously reconsider [private ticketing] because of what's happening in its place," Mirmelli said. "What's going on now is, instead of people getting a ticket, they're just getting towed right off the bat. In fact, they're getting towed at such a rate that the towing companies can't even keep up and we're having to bring in additional towing companies. I think that's harmful for the public."
Attorney Anthony De Yurre also spoke in front of the commission. He represents City Parking Inc., a large lot operator that has begun contracting with PPM to handle enforcement. If the city didn't legalize private ticketing, De Yurre argued, it would force lot owners to tow.
"Please don't force a tow," De Yurre pleaded to city commissioners. "The tow will be much worse."
Mirmelli's and De Yurre's statements express lot owners' need to ensure every parking spot is paid for. In meetings and workshops, however, commissioners asked why operators couldn't charge for parking via methods that would minimize the need for enforcement.
The pay-on-exit method requires drivers to take a ticket from a machine on arrival and pay for the exact amount of time used before leaving a lot. The Shops at Midtown Miami currently use this method in their garage. And some companies now offer it via mobile payments that eliminate the need for ticket-stub machines and pay stations. Drivers simply scan a QR code on the way in and out.
A second option is to use pay-to-park apps that have a "Start/Stop" feature, which allows parkers to start a parking session when they arrive and end it when they leave. PayByPhone doesn't offer the feature. But its competitor, ParkMobile, does, if a vendor asks for it. The feature is also common in Europe.
Flat-rate parking is another common alternative.
City Commissioner Joe Carollo, who co-sponsored the emergency order banning private ticketing in 2019, voted to reverse the ban last April. (Carollo didn't respond to emailed questions asking why lot operators were not required to offer one of those alternative payment methods.)
But ensuring that drivers pay for parking is more complicated than most people think.
Professional Parking ManagementDavid Fairbaugh, vice president of customer service and public relations for PPM, says advances in parking and payment technology haven't yet reached a point where enforcement would no longer be necessary: "It's going to happen. I just don't know when. But not soon. There are just too many things that go on."
The pay-on-exit method, he says, is great in theory but most lot owners can't afford it. "If a parking lot has three entrances and you've got to put in three islands with gates and pay stations, the equipment gets expensive."
When that equipment breaks or a gate arm is knocked down, Fairbaugh adds, it can cost up to $1,000 to repair. In the interim, some drivers see an opportunity to exit without paying and more revenue is lost.
Gates are also cumbersome when large numbers of drivers try to leave a lot at the same time, such as after an event.
Some newer payment methods, like those that use QR codes, can present challenges owing to credit-card compliance issues and the fact that some low-income and elderly drivers don't have access to or know how to use the technology. And paying an attendant is expensive.
Fairbaugh, who has worked in the parking industry for 30 years, says PPM's technology solves all those issues. "By getting rid of the gates, that clutter, those bills, a lot of operators are very happy to partner with us."
Fueling lot owners' enthusiasm is the fact that food-delivery apps and the pandemic have killed traffic at many restaurants and businesses. For some, ticketing is an enticing new revenue stream.
Though most drivers are angry that PPM charges significantly more than a municipal parking ticket, Fairbaugh contends that government operators aren't subject to the same taxes and fees private companies are, and the increased ticket amount incorporates the cost of PPM's equipment, installation, lost revenue, employee pay, and management of the notice process.
"Importantly," Fairbaugh adds, "the fee must also provide an incentive to the public to comply with the posted parking rules."
Of course, at $45 to $85 per ticket, meanwhile, lot owners can generate revenue previously unheard-of. And PPM, which operates on a profit-sharing model, shares in those earnings.
Fairbaugh wouldn't say who owns PPM, only that it's "privately held." The company's Florida address (1314 East Las Olas Blvd., #405, Ft. Lauderdale) is a private mailbox at a shipping outlet and shares that address, and a phone number, with Beachler Capital.
Beachler Capital is owned by Andrew Beachler, who is also PPM's president, according to Fairbaugh. Beachler also owns Premier Booting Services, which operates throughout South Florida. His name appeared on PPM's earliest state filings in Georgia, where the company was first incorporated in June of 2008, and on the company's initial Florida filings two months later.
Michael Jacob, who owns Georgia Parking Enforcement Coalition and Advanced Booting Services, which operate in Georgia and Florida, also appeared on PPM's early state filings in Georgia.
Since 2019, however, Bryant Orue has replaced Beachler and Jacob on state filings and has held multiple officer positions at both the Georgia company and its Florida branch. Orue confirmed by phone that he holds those positions but did not elaborate on his role. Fairbaugh referred to him as a "local manager."
Currently, Fairbaugh says, PPM operates in 300 lots across Florida, Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, and Colorado, with a dozen lots in Miami-Dade and "probably three times as many" waiting to come onboard.
"We are the future," Fairbaugh says. "At least, until something better comes along."
The British ModelIn 2003, the City of London began imposing a congestion charge on drivers who enter the city center at certain times. Enforcement was handled via License Plate Recognition (LPR) cameras. A London entrepreneur named Mendy Sudak thought: Why not use them for parking, too?
Sudak started a company called Ranger Services (now GroupNexus) to help lot owners enforce parking rules. Several copycat businesses emerged and the practice eventually spread nationwide. Public outrage and lawsuits followed. And while the industry lost some battles, it won others — primarily, the express right to issue "parking charge notices" and to use collection agencies and the courts to collect their money.
Levi Sudak, Mendy Sudak's 28-year-old son, now lives in Miami and is aiming for similar developments here.
Initially, he says, he had no interest in parking enforcement. Then, while living in California, his car was towed. That experience was a $400 "nightmare." It also changed his perspective on the family business: "I realized we're actually doing something that benefits society. Because by allowing landowners to have an alternative to towing or booting, you get to be a lot nicer and less punitive to parking violators."
Sudak started his own U.S. company, Etico Parking, in 2018. Etico, the Italian word for "ethical," provides technology and software to Professional Parking Management and a growing number of other enforcement companies.
"There's been an evolution in the U.K. and we're pushing that evolution in the U.S. as well," Sudak says. "The U.K. had a few rounds of regulations that, hopefully, will come here soon to help us both enforce and make sure the industry is clean."
For instance, private parking enforcement companies in the U.K. must belong to an accredited trade organization, such as the British Parking Association, and adhere to a code of practice. There's also an independent regulatory body called POPLA (Parking On Private Land Appeals) to handle disputes.
No such protections currently exist in the U.S.
Most notably, in 2012, once private ticketing had a strong foothold in the U.K., the government banned booting and towing as an enforcement method. Sudak says he'd like to see booting and towing cease here, too, "whether it's by getting them outlawed or by convincing as many parking lots to convert to ticketing as possible."
In the meantime, Etico and its partners are moving into new municipalities with the stance that private ticketing is legal unless an ordinance expressly bans it. When lawmakers complain, the industry's lawyers and lobbyists step in to persuade them that private tickets are the future, then work with them to get new codes written.
That's the approach PPM took in Miami, and it explains why they were operating in the city prior to legislation on the issue.
It's also how they got a ban turned into a green light.
We may now be in a kind of honeymoon period. Once private ticketing is more solidly established, collection efforts could ramp up.
Lobbyists and LawyersAccording to commission documents, the official reason for overturning the city's ban on private ticketing was to create regulations that are consistent with a similar county ordinance, introduced a year earlier. Yet, that county ordinance allows municipalities to enact their own, stricter rules.
In other words, the city could have done what Coral Gables did when lobbyists convinced them to overturn a ban on private tickets in 2019. Gables commissioners passed an ordinance that capped ticket prices, mandated a 15-minute grace period before ticketing, and prevented the ticketing of handicapped drivers. Towing in private lots for overtime parking, meanwhile, was already illegal and booting is only allowed 60 minutes after a meter expires, with a $25 price cap for removal.
The City of Miami, on the other hand, only mandated the use and avoidance of certain language on private tickets.
Miami commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who sponsored the legislation in April, didn't respond to questions from New Times asking about details of the amendment's negotiation. But records show that Albert Balido and Edgar G. Fernandez, both of Anfield Consulting Group, registered as lobbyists for PPM in early 2020, a few weeks after Diaz de la Portilla took office. Anfield Consulting donated $1,000, the legal maximum, to Diaz de la Portilla's election campaign.
City Parking Inc., for whom PPM provides enforcement, is represented by Ron Book, one of Florida's most powerful lobbyists. Book appeared at a city commission meeting in 2019 to argue for legalized private ticketing. That same year, he donated $3,000 (as an individual and via his consulting and law firm) to Diaz de la Portilla's campaign for city commission District 1. His wife donated another $1,000.
Diaz de la Portilla also received $5,000 in contributions from six other parking-related companies that year. (None of the other current commissioners have received contributions from PPM.)
Several of PPM's current and former officers, employees, and partners donated a combined total of $8,000 to Renier Diaz de la Portilla, Alex's brother, when he ran unsuccessfully for county commission in District 5 last year. District 5 includes the parking-dense areas of downtown Miami, Little Havana, parts of Brickell, and most of Miami Beach.
Some of those same lobbyists, lawyers, and companies were behind the successful push to amend Miami-Dade's and Coral Gables' codes. And, while those connections and donations might suggest the origins of the local private ticketing legislation, convincing the full commission to vote for it may have been a breeze considering the potential windfall for the city.
Under Miami law, every parking transaction is subject to a 15 percent "Parking Surcharge" tax. The law doesn't specifically mention enforcement transactions, but PPM spokesman David Fairbaugh says the company has been collecting and remitting that tax to the City of Miami on the belief that it's legally required.
Franklin Laso, president of Complete Consulting Services Group, a private auditing firm that ensures the city's parking operators pass along the surcharge to the city, didn't respond to questions about how much money PPM has paid the city in surcharge money so far.
There are, however, roughly 500 private parking operators in the City of Miami. As private ticketing spreads, more surcharge money will be collected and the city's haul could rise to millions of dollars annually.
To Pay or Not to PaySo, what happens if you ignore a 'parking charge notice' from Professional Parking Management?
When contacted by New Times, PPM's attorney, Russell O'Brien of Conrad & Scherer, didn't provide details on the legal basis for PPM's notices. Instead, he supplied a statement from PPM noting that the terms and conditions of the parking arrangement are clearly posted onsite at partner lots.
Indeed, a blue sign at the entrance to lots where PPM operates spells out a roughly 900-word "Parking Contract."' And, although nobody will actually get out of their car to read that fine print before parking, its mere presence likely satisfies legal requirements established under U.S. contract law.
"If you enter a parking lot, you are generally entering a contract with the lot owner," Teel Lidow, a Harvard Law grad and CEO of the consumer-rights service FairShake, explains in an email. You agree to that contract by taking your ticket out of the machine or just by entering the lot, since usually it's posted somewhere at the entrance. Included in that contract is the right to issue the parking tickets, and the contract is probably solid."
Matthew Bavaro, a Fort Lauderdale loan attorney familiar with contract law, says, "If you're ticketed, I would look at it just like any other consumer debt. It's really just an invoice for amounts owed and not yet paid."
Like any consumer debt, he explains, it could be sent to a debt collector working on behalf of PPM and they could put it on your credit report. PPM could also bundle a large amount of unpaid invoices and sell them for pennies on the dollar to a debt buyer who will then pursue the debts independently.
The lot owner, PPM, the debt collector, or debt buyer could also sue you.
But that, Bavaro says, is unlikely. The small amount of each unpaid ticket would have to be sought in small claims court, where the filing fees would likely exceed the amount of the debt. And, although the collector would be entitled to those fees if they win, they would likely not be able to seek legal fees, too. So the process would be cost prohibitive.
"My guess is they would try to put it on somebody's credit report and kind of strong-arm them into paying it that way," Bavaro theorizes.
David Fairbaugh, PPM's spokesman, says that after an initial notice, PPM sends out three reminders. If you ignore them all, "the collection agency gets it and they do what they do."
Some online commenters, however, have reported receiving no reminders and no follow-up action after ignoring a notice.
Fairbaugh was vague when asked what, or who, determines whether a notice goes to collections, saying only that, "As with any new process, there is a period of learning, understanding, and adjusting. We are working with all involved parties to provide this education."
His statement suggests we may now be in a kind of honeymoon period. Once private ticketing is more solidly established, collection efforts could ramp up.
Meanwhile, if you don't pay a notice, you could get towed if you return to park in the lot where you were ticketed — but only if your spot is not paid for when the tow truck arrives. That decision, though, is up to the lot owner. Some might tow for a single unpaid notice and others only after several.
In addition to paying that towing fee, some municipalities may allow PPM to demand payment for unpaid notices. Fairbaugh, however, couldn't say if that was the case in Miami.
Ultimately, if you choose to ignore a private parking ticket, you may simply want to avoid the lot where you received it — at least until future regulations clarify the gray areas.
Ironside's PayByPhone signs, as in most private lots, closely resemble the MPA's signs in size, shape, and color.
IronsideBack at Ironside, where Jen Zavaleta was ticketed, it's not clear what measures will be taken against her for discarding her ticket. Owner Ofer Mizrahi didn't respond to emailed questions about the operation of his three lots or why he hired a parking enforcement company.
Zavaleta, meanwhile, says she was confused by the PayByPhone signs in his lots.
PayByPhone is locally ubiquitous, thanks to the Miami Parking Authority's adoption of the app citywide in 2008. That government connection has led many residents to assume the system is city-owned. It's actually a Canada-based app owned by Volkswagen. Any lot owner can open an account, install PayByPhone signs, and begin collecting payments. They can also contract with a company like PPM, whose software integrates with PayByPhone, to catch parking violators.
Ironside's PayByPhone signs, as in most private lots, closely resemble the MPA's signs in size, shape, and color. They also include a small round 'P' logo like the MPA's.
PayByPhone spokeswoman Jessica Britton says her company works with lot operators on the "look and feel" of signage but tries to ensure signs are consistent enough that people will recognize them as part of the PayByPhone brand. The company doesn't require private lots to use signs that are distinct from government signs. That, she says, would have to be addressed by local codes.
Miami does, in fact, have an ordinance addressing private parking signage. But it only mandates that a lot operator's name and logo be displayed on signs and "not resemble the type or logo of the Miami Parking Authority." It does not require that a third party's signs, such as those supplied by PayByPhone, be easily distinguishable from the MPA's.
Other signs at Ironside clearly identify the lots as private. But Zavaleta said she didn't notice them. "I just look for payment signs when I park," she tells New Times. "I don't know what the other signs mean. If I see PayByPhone, I assume it's the city."
She says she understands that lot owners need to make money but calls it "crazy" that a business like Ironside is ticketing its own customers. "I spent over $1,000 at Ironside in the last six months," she says. "Now they want to charge me $85 because my meter expired?"
If she receives any follow-up about her ticket, she says, she still has no plans to pay it. And if she goes back to Ironside, she'll park on the street.
"So, in the end," she says, "they're actually losing money."