For five days a week, Salt Lake City Justice Court hearing officers hold confessionals. Residents file in, clutching parking tickets, tell sob stories and sometimes produce tears—real or crocodile—while begging for clemency. In years past, the Salt Lake City Justice Court tended to reduce the fine for those willing to come in and fight the power, but things have changed since the creation of Salt Lake City’s collections department. The word now is that parking-ticket reductions are allowed based solely on guidelines the city established in 1998. There’s even discussion in city hall about raising the minimum reduction amount.
With a recession still stifling the local economy and city coffers, the Salt Lake City Finance Department’s Collection Unit was established in spring 2010 to look for ways to recoup outstanding debts to the city. Parking enforcement grabbed ticket-dodgers’ attention in March 2011 when they began placing electronic boots on the cars of residents who had two or more outstanding parking tickets. The measure allowed parking-enforcement officers to troll neighborhoods and scan automobile license plates—even those parked legally—and boot offenders with outstanding tickets.
The new enforcement practice is seen as necessary to collect debts of an estimated $1.3 million that could be used to finance vital services such as police and fire services and local road maintenance. While the boots are the city’s way of putting its foot down, another means of protecting city revenue may come from curbing frivolous parking-ticket reductions, an amount that hit $1,008,101 in fiscal year 2010 (June 2009 to June 2010).
The 2011 reductions were on track to surpass 2010’s total, with records indicating the city had already granted $715,282 in reductions as of March 2011. While those numbers seem to mirror the previous fiscal year, the trajectory of reductions did slow down in the summer and fall of 2010. According to Claudia Sundbeck, the administrator over civil and traffic enforcement for the Salt Lake City Justice Court, the decline in fine reductions came about as the city’s collections department launched.
“A year ago, the city created a collections department to help collect on outstanding debt to the city,” Sundbeck says. “They looked back at the city’s parking ordinance and realized that we had kind of gotten away from it.”
Ordinance guidelines allow for exceptions from full payment in cases of medical emergencies or mechanical failures on vehicles and provide time frames for reducing ticket penalties on unregistered vehicles. Sundbeck says hearing officers had deviated from the strict wording of the 21-year-old ordinance.
“We weren’t following it as much as we should have been, and we had to step back and say, ‘We should never reduce someone’s ticket just because they walk in the door.’ ”
Reductions appeared to be plentiful in 2010, averaging $93,000 a month, well above 2009’s summer average (July through September) of $75,000. But the lower number of reduced-ticket dollars is evident when comparing reductions between October and March for fiscal year 2010 versus 2011. In that six-month period in fiscal year 2010, the city had reduced tickets to the tune of $511,981, compared to $435,364 in fiscal year 2011—which gave the city $76,617.
Sundbeck says that hearing officers still have some leeway to help dismiss or reduce residents’ tickets when they have registration but forgot to place their decals or misplaced their handicapped placards.
“Hearing officers have some discretion,” Sundbeck says, “but they also have to be held more accountable to the ordinance.”
The ordinance was originally drafted in 1990 and updated in 1998. When the new collections department began looking into it, they started a discussion with the justice court that may include revisiting the ordinance for a 21st-century update.
According to Laura Kirwan in the Salt Lake City Attorney’s Office, one possible rewrite to the ordinance would be to reduce the reduction—giving residents less forgiveness on tickets by raising the minimum amount that must be paid from $3 to $10. While it’s still early and the discussion is ongoing, Kirwan says such measures are always considered when a city budget faces an economy still on the mend.
“If you’re trying to find more money and there’s no tax revenue,” Kirwan says, “you look everywhere you can.”