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Park Avenue Breakdown

[whitespace] getting the boot
Robert Scheer

A Boot Point: Once the dreaded Denver boot is clamped on a car's front wheel, the descent into the lower circles of parking hell begins in earnest for 'scofflaws.'

Santa Cruzans with delinquent parking tickets can have their cars booted, towed and sold--and can't do a thing about it

By Traci Hukill

ONE HOT DAY IN JULY TWO years ago, Willy Jackson got off work with big plans for his baby. Not the dinner-and-flowers kind of baby. Not the Enfamil-and-rattle kind, either. This baby was a 1968 Buick Grand Sport California, and she had a gleaming new 430-cubic-inch motor under her primer-patched hood. With the engine work complete, Jackson was ready to piece her interior back together starting that afternoon.

There was just one problem. On the car's right front wheel, the heavy-gauge steel jaws of a Denver boot had closed and locked tight, a gift from the City of Santa Cruz's parking department. He knew he was screwed as soon as he saw the boot. But he didn't know how badly.

Jackson's first instinct was to fight. "When they got my Buick involved, that's when things got personal," he tells me with a light in his eye that's about two-thirds good-natured twinkle and one-third calculating glitter. He knows what he's just said sounds funny, but he's not really laughing. He wasn't laughing two years ago, either.

He read the boot as a declaration of war by the parking agency, so he went to battle with the bureaucracy. He made phone calls. He visited officials. He went out for burgers with Mayor Mike Rotkin and discussed his plight.

His campaigning saved his car from the ultimate fate of booted vehicles: a lien sale by the towing company. He was even able to work out a payment plan with the city to get his beloved Buick back. But in the end--he won't make his final payment until this summer--Jackson will have handed over $2,317 in parking fines, late charges, nonregistration tickets and towing fees.

Das Boot

JACKSON'S TROUBLES REALLY started the year before the boot bit his Buick; that was in 1995. He says he was driving a 1968 Oldsmobile at the time, working, going to school and flat broke. So he slid on getting the $10 residential permit; he let his registration lapse, too.

During the first two weeks of the May-to-September resident-permit program (introduced in 1985 at the request of residents to keep summer visitors from hogging street spaces in their neighborhoods), Jackson got 10 parking tickets that rapidly jumped from $33 to $43 to $63 apiece, plus a $106 nonregistration ticket.

When he pleaded for clemency after the first week based on the city's promise of a one-week grace period, he found he was a day late. Too bad, shrugged the attendant at the ticket-payment window, according to Jackson. In a matter of weeks, a guy who couldn't spare $10 for a sticker found himself owing the city $736 for the unforgivable crimes of parking in front of his house and being poor and a little disorganized.

The blizzard of tickets continued in spite of the obvious fact that Jackson was an area resident.

"Every meter lady down there knows who I am," he snorts. "I've lived there 11 years. Every time they passed, they'd just slap another one on." The senselessness of it irked him and trying to address it just seemed pointless: he saw no way to dig himself out of that financial mess. By the time Jackson gave up and stored his Olds a year later, the tickets had piled up in a drift 19 citations deep and $1,344 high.

Jackson thought he'd make a clean start with the Buick. He registered the car and hung a guest-parking pass from the rear-view mirror. But the permit-parking guidelines specify that residents are not allowed to use guest permits as substitutes for permanent-resident passes, though the reasons for that rule are obscure. So the ticketing began again.

Jackson, having not learned the obvious lesson about the implacability of parking laws, let the tickets accumulate again. Two months later, the boot appeared, and the Buick was carted off on the back of a North County Recovery & Towing class A rig.

Getting it back cost not just the $378 from the Buick's six tickets, but also the $1,344 from the Oldsmobile, plus $325 in towing charges and various other assessments, including a $30 "payment plan fee." The grand total for the Grand Sport California: more than $2,300.

"I've paid this city so much money, I should have a gold-plated parking space," Jackson says bitterly. "And it all started with those first five tickets. A damn parking ticket, not like drunk driving or a hit-and-run."

He thinks a minute, then adds earnestly, "Please, treat me like a respectable citizen. I pay taxes, I go to work, I party a little on the weekends, but I keep it under control. Just give me the respect."

parking tickets accumulate
Robert Scheer

Through a Windshield Darkly: Once the parking tickets start to accumulate, motorists can quickly find themselves owing more than their cars are worth.

Those Dimes Add Up

THE SYSTEM, AS Willy Jackson and others have learned, can be harsh. Under the law, cars with unpaid parking tickets can be booted, then impounded and sold by towing companies. Besides charging exorbitant amounts of money to store impounded vehicles--in Santa Cruz, it's up to $25 a day--the tow companies are legally allowed to pocket the money from the lien sale of impounded vehicles.

This leaves the "customer" (parking officials use the term interchangeably with "scofflaws") without transportation and a bill that can exceed thousands of dollars.

Because they can't register any vehicle without first paying outstanding fines, these individuals are effectively trapped in a punitive cycle of fines and subterfuge. And since the parking-fine process moved out of the courts and into civil jurisdiction four years ago, they no longer have a formal avenue to seek mitigation.

But Matt Farrell, parking programs manager for Santa Cruz, bridles at the suggestion that parking penalties are unnecessarily severe: "It's just like if you don't pay your credit card bill and get a bad credit record, no one says, 'Poor you.' We give several notices on citations. It doesn't happen overnight. How is it different from not paying your credit-card bill or rent?"

Farrell's a nice enough man, but his attitude neatly sums up the adversarial relationship between the parking department and people who find themselves falling behind the department's vigorous collection schedule. In reality, the problem is not confined to the parking department.

Parking is big business in Santa Cruz. According to the budget, the city expects nearly $3 million in parking revenue this year. Almost $1 million of that will come from parking violations. Another million in nickels, dimes and quarters will flood in from meter collections. With the new parking policies, which extend the hours of metered parking two hours (until 8pm, starting March 30) every day but Sunday, that sum is bound to increase next year.The rest of the $3 million flow is made up of fees charged to downtown businesses, revenue from the Locust Street garage and a few other sources.

Astonishingly, the $1 million from parking violations jingling into city coffers does not include the first $5 skimmed off the top of each parking citation--an estimated $400,000 per year--earmarked for the county jail fund. Add in that figure, and Santa Cruzans and their summer guests spend about $1.4 million each year in parking fines.

Not everyone pays, of course, which is where the boot comes in. Currently, the city has filed judgments against 300 people for delinquent tickets. Collectively, these "customers" owe $144,000.

But Farrell contends that his department's policies are reasonable, even lenient. For one thing, the meter people are less aggressive than they used to be. The number of citations issued has dropped from 100,000 in the mid-'80s to 70,000 or 80,000 in the last few years. And "if you come out on the street and someone's writing you a ticket, they won't complete the ticket," he insists.

As for the residential permits, Farrell points out that the residents requested them. "The $33 penalty is demanded by residents who wanted to have a high-cost penalty for parking in their neighborhoods," he says. "Although we do recommend these fees, they are driven by a constituency who wants them."

Then there's the issue of towing. California law allows vehicles to be towed after they've accrued five parking tickets. Here, Farrell concedes, "we feel that's excessive. So we put a boot on it instead. That's cheaper than a tow." Customarily, the city waits three working days before towing a booted vehicle--but again, enforcement officers give people a couple of extra days.

And finally, Farrell notes, "we have payment plans. If people have extenuating circumstances, our people try to work with them. They don't play favorites, but they are compassionate. There's more flexibility than it seems like at first from the outside looking in."

Terminal Justy

TRY TELLING TARA Murphy about flexibility. Last year, Murphy's car was booted and towed for unpaid parking tickets and registration fines. Like Jackson, she was living in the Beach Hill/Beach Flats residential-permit zone, but she was subleasing a friend's apartment when the permit expired.

Only official lessees can renew parking permits, so Murphy watched in frustration as the parking tickets piled up. She couldn't afford to smog and register her car, so costly registration tickets added up, too.

When she first saw the boot on her car last June, Murphy went to the parking-ticket window on the side of the Locust Street garage, $200 in hand, and asked Claudia Carlson of the Parking Control Office how she could pay the balance of the $723 she owed at that point.

"I said, 'Here I am, here's some money,' " says Murphy. " 'What can I do for the balance? A payment plan? I'll paint over graffiti, do community service, clean medians--whatever.' I was willing to put on gloves and work off the remainder of the tickets.

"And she said, 'We don't negotiate. We don't make payment arrangements.' "

At this point in the story, Murphy is fuming. "Even American Express will give you the opportunity to restructure your debt! It's just sound business practice. There was no humanity to that exchange."

Carlson, however, points out that Murphy was a repeat offender. She'd been booted once before for a vehicle with delinquent tickets, and in both cases, the vehicles weren't currently registered. "We don't do payment plans when people don't register their cars," she says. Like Farrell, Carlson invokes the departmental claim that its policies are relatively generous.

"The law says we can tow a car immediately, but we boot the car and then give them three working days, because we want them to succeed here. We want them to be able to pay their tickets."

When Carlson turned her away, Murphy, like Jackson, called the mayor. When that didn't help, she did some math. The car, a 1986 Subaru Justy bought from a friend, had only cost her a couple hundred dollars. She decided to let it go. A week after the Justy was booted, it disappeared--to the tow yard, Murphy assumes. And she assumes, although she never received notice of a lien sale, that the car was eventually sold.

In the meantime, the tow company's tow charge and storage fees mounted up on Murphy's bill. At least that's her best guess, since she has yet to see a line-item accounting of the $1,419 she owes the city as of March 2. She can't register her current car until she's paid the sum in full. In January, the city filed a civil judgment against her.

Tow Job

NOT ALL OF THE COUNTY'S 30 tow companies offer long-term storage, but those that do charge about $45 a month to patrons who just need a place to stash a vehicle. On average, though, most tow companies--including the six under contract with Santa Cruz--charge $20-$25 a day to store cars that have been towed for failure to pay parking fines. That's industry standard, they claim.

Dave Grube, the general manager at North County Recovery & Towing, Inc., has been with the company for 15 years. North County has had a contract with the city for half that time. Grube misses being out in the field, where his specialty is mud- and four-wheel-drive-recovery, but for now he's stuck at a desk job. He casts a regretful look at the kaleidoscopic screen saver swirling on his monitor--a constant reminder of his new sedentary position--and says, "I didn't count on this a few years ago." He's a true believer in the profession.

"We truly are doing a service here," he says. "Probably 95 percent of what we do is help someone who's in trouble out there. We're doing something good that needs to be done."

But Grube can't--or won't--explain why it costs $25 a day for each of the 50-odd vehicles in the storage yard to sit there. He talks about security liability and insurance costs for those cars, and about the difficulty of staying in business.

As he walks around the fenced yard, the most obvious security measure is the savagely barking Rottweiler Samantha, who seems to interpret any human presence there as a personal insult. If high security costs don't make up the $25-a-day storage fee, then what does? In the end, Grube agrees that the high storage charge reflects the company's prodigious operating costs more than insurance concerns.

On the subject of lien sales, Grube contends that most of those cars are junkers that have to be dismantled. "We'd rather people came and got them," he says. "We're not making any money off the cars that are left here."

Who Needs Meters?

THE WILLY JACKSONS and Tara Murphys of the world aren't popular with everyone. Some people dismiss them as irresponsible types who can't stand lying in the beds they've made for themselves. In fact, both of them allow for their own responsibility in their current situations.

What they have a problem with is the severity of the penalties for a relatively harmless crime and the fact that they have no recourse to ask for a little understanding. The civil-jurisdiction system doesn't allow for court hearings and pleas before a (hopefully) sympathetic judge. Hence the frantic phone calls to the mayor and anyone else who will listen.

To make matters worse, the state has allowed punishment of these minor violations--and in the big picture, parking violations are indeed minor--to move beyond the arena of registration tags and revoked licenses and into seizure of property. The system has lost its perspective.

Just because the California Vehicle Code allows for draconian measures doesn't mean cities are obliged to employ them. Many communities, including San Jose, don't boot or tow cars for parking violations, and in fact, San Jose enjoys a collection rate in excess of 80 percent--which is better than Santa Cruz's 65­75 percent.

What does San Jose know that Santa Cruz doesn't? San Jose parking manager Laura Wells says, "We've been working on improving collection efforts with DMV holds and special collections--sending out multiple notices of delinquency. It seems to be working."

Petaluma doesn't boot or tow cars either. Ten years ago, that city even removed the parking meters from its streets at the request of merchants, replacing them with time-limited zones.

Capt. Dave Long of the Petaluma Police Department explains how the city recovers delinquent fines: "What we do is put liens against the license, and thereby they can't re-register their cars. I guess theoretically we could tow. We just choose not to do that. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out why public sentiment would be against that.

"So do we go out and track down those heinous felons? No. We wait for the system to catch up to them. And it does."

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From the March 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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