Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Chasing the Scofflaws

Blighted property and unpaid parking tickets vex city council.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 17, 2012 at 8:44 PM

Sometimes the Memphis City Council deals with big stuff like budgets and signature developments, and sometimes it deals with little stuff that adds up to big stuff.

In the second category you can put fines and fees and, especially, the people who incur them and do not pay them. In a word, scofflaws.

Two types of scofflaws have earned special attention from the council this month. One is the owners of blighted property and the other is people who don't pay parking tickets. It's not exactly the crime of the century, and lives are rarely at stake, but problem properties and problem parkers take up a lot of city manpower. Add that to the lost revenue from uncollected fines and you're talking millions of dollars.

As always, someone thinks they have a better idea, and the council is all ears — as you might want to be too if you live near a blighted property (who doesn't?) or have an unpaid $20 ticket (ditto).

The blight problem is estimated by city officials to include at least 63,000 vacant and abandoned properties plus a "shadow inventory" of problem properties that banks have not yet forced into foreclosure. What to do? Well, now the city can notify the owner that, say, the yard is ridiculously overgrown and there have been complaints. If there is no response, the city can cut the yard and send the owner the bill or place a lien on the property. It should be noted that overgrown lots are the least of the problems faced by some crime-ridden neighborhoods, but this will serve as an example.

The catch is that irresponsible people are by definition not responsible and unlikely to respond to neighborly complaints, official notices, or fines. The city of Memphis wants to put on the books a property registration requirement.

"We can't find anyone responsible, and we're overworking the departments involved," said attorney Julian Bolton, who is working with the city. "We need a clean database."

The cost for responsible homeowners would be as little as $5, he said, while scofflaws would be subject to a $200 fine. Memphis, at least in theory, could make some money, put the screws to out-of-town owners, and reduce blight as Bolton said other cities have done by starting a registry.

Or not. Joseph Kirkland, an attorney representing several lenders, told the council the Shelby County Assessor already keeps a database of 240,753 parcels. A new registry would duplicate it, and owners could demand jury trials over the fines, which would be "a nightmare." Or, as Councilman Jim Strickland suggested, "Bad property owners are not going to register. They'll ignore it."

The discussion ended with a showing of a Channel 3 News clip of a roach-infested apartment building in Hickory Hill and a tenant complaining that the owner is not responsive. The proposed new property registry will be discussed by all parties for another month.

The parking-ticket issue brought to the council's table two opposing parties. Charles Fineberg, president of Mid South Subpoena Service, wants to take over collections of unpaid fines he estimated at over $3 million a year. City Court clerk Tom Long wants to keep the present system and says the uncollected fines are closer to $1 million.

"We're spending money on enforcement and not getting the revenue," said Councilman Kemp Conrad.

Consumer alert! The fine for a parking ticket is $20. It escalates to $40, then to $80, if unpaid. But, as canny drivers and media watchdogs know, it goes away after one year. Still, Long says, roughly 80 percent of fines are collected. His policy is to fish where the big ones are — the big ones being people with more than $500 in unpaid tickets. Those scofflaws face "booting" by the dreaded wheel-locking boot (rarely used, Long admits) or towing, which means $200 in additional charges and $30-a-day storage. Long said police towed more than 900 cars in the first six months of 2012, which serves as a deterrent to would-be scofflaws.

"Because we're towing, they're paying," said Long, who says his office collects $2.5 million a year on parking tickets. "If I had two years instead of one to collect fines, it would be a lot more."

The council decided to take Fineberg's proposal under consideration.

Consider yourself warned.

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