Speeding Half Off 

I'm the type of person who loves a good deal. Give me cheap knock-offs, close-out sales, or outlet stores, and I am very happy. I also feel duty-bound to share my good fortune, always telling people (sometimes inappropriately) how inexpensive something was.

Which is probably why I found myself in city court clerk Thomas Long's office last week. For the next four months, Long is having a fire sale of sorts, giving people with 10-year-old tickets 50 percent off if they pay them before the end of the year.

"I just hope people will take advantage of it," says Long. "If you owe money, don't let December 31st pass, because on January 1st, all tickets revert back to their original price."

To my mind, 20 to 30 percent off is an okay deal. Forty percent is pretty good, but 50 percent -- that's like the Holy Grail of discounts. I mean, anything more and you know there's something wrong with the product (will break the first time you use it, out-of-style, completely heinous, etc.).

But is there something wrong with the court clerk? Why would he discount speeding tickets? And is that fair to people who got caught with a lead foot this Labor Day?

Long estimates that scofflaws owe the city more than $22 million in decade-old (or older) tickets. As of January 31st, 73 percent of the amount due for 1995 had been paid. Only 26 percent of 1990's tickets and 15 percent of 1985's had been paid, but state law prohibits Long's office from contacting debtors after 10 years.

"If we outsourced it to a third party -- based on the conversations I've had with collection agencies -- they were going to charge us 50 cents on the dollar," Long says. "If I'm going to give somebody 50 percent, let's give it to the people as an incentive to come in and pay."

Shortly after Long became court clerk in 1996, he realized they were suspending about 5,000 driver's licenses each month because of unpaid tickets.

"One reason is that people moved and government mail is not forwarded," Long says. "They were not getting notified that they were going to be suspended."

In fact, 80 to 90 percent of the mail Long's office sends out is returned. If drivers haven't changed the address on their license for a number of years, it's conceivable that their licenses could be suspended without them ever knowing it. (If you're a little nervous about that -- I was: guilty conscience, I guess -- you can check your status at cityofmemphis.org or by going to the court clerk's debt recovery office at 201 Poplar.)

The amnesty program isn't Long's first attempt to make drivers legal and collect money for the city. Long started Drive While You Pay, which lets drivers make monthly payments and keep their licenses, in 1999. As of April 30th of this year, he had collected almost $6 million, but first, he had to get people to trust him.

"People were afraid," Long says. "They thought we were going to do a sting operation, get them down here, say we're going to talk about driver's licenses, and then arrest everybody."

For the current program, drivers will have to continue to trust Long, because amnesty program or no, state law says he still can't contact those people with tickets from before 1995.

"A lot of folks don't think people should be given half off their tickets," Long says. "If you look at the mathematics of it ... it's also the best arrangement I can make for the city of Memphis. If I outsource it to a collection agency, we get 27 percent (after fees). If I do the amnesty program, we get 50 percent, and we get it in a short time too."

For those who think it won't work, Long points out that after the amnesty period is over, the city can still outsource unpaid tickets to a collection agency.

"My job is to collect money. We're going to be evaluated on the percentage of collections. That's not what we like to talk about, but that's what we're graded on," Long says. "Right now, over a five-year period, we're collecting roughly 75 percent of money owed to the city of Memphis. ... The industry average in terms of total collections is about 38 percent."

Sounds like a deal to me.

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