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City sending parking tickets to collections agency
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
If you put off paying a parking ticket in Baker City, you better prepare to pull a few more bills from your pocketbook, too.
The price is rising for parking ticket procrastinators.
Baker City now sends tickets to a collection agency if they are not paid within 30 days, City Manager Gordon Zimmerman said.
He hopes the city's more aggressive attitude will reverse a recent trend in which fewer people are paying parking fines promptly.
According to Baker Justice Court, where parking tickets are adjudicated, since 1998 the city has collected about half of the $9,500 it issued in fines.
But in the past few months that percentage has declined to about 30 percent, Zimmerman said.
City officials can't say with any certainty why more people are ignoring their citations.
City Attorney Tim Collins cites cost as one possible culprit.
In August 2001 the City Council boosted the base parking fine from $5 to $20. The council also increased the late fee, which is added to tickets not paid within 30 days, from $10 to $20.
Collins said it's possible people are more reluctant to part with $20 than with $5 even though the new, higher late fees mean failing to pay costs considerably more in the long run.
Regardless of the reason people don't pay, Zimmerman said his goal is to reverse the recent trend.
"We just need to get people to comply," he said.
To encourage people to do so the city has contracted with Cam Credits Inc. of Baker City to act as collection agent.
And that makes procrastination even more expensive.
Fail to pay a ticket within 30 days and the tab jumps not to $40, but to $50 including the new $10 collection fee.
Cam Credits keeps $25.
The city and Baker Justice Court split the rest, as they have done in the past.
Zimmerman said he plans to test the tougher new approach for at least a few months to see if it encourages people to take care of their tickets on time.
If not, Zimmerman said he will ask the City Council to consider more drastic measures to deter frequent offenders including impounding their vehicles, or locking a wheel in place with a metal "boot" that the city would remove only after the vehicle owner pays the fine and an extra $75 penalty.
He hopes neither action is necessary.
"I'm not out to ruin people's lives by taking their cars," Zimmerman said. "I just want the bills paid."
A downtown dilemma
Shannon Regan, the city's code enforcement officer and the writer of most parking tickets, said that although she cites vehicles in every section of town, she pulls out her pen most often downtown.
"I could spend my whole eight-hour shift on downtown parking alone," Regan said.
She doesn't, though, because she's often dispatched to deal with stray dogs and other code violations.
Regan said many of the tickets she writes downtown are for cars belonging to business owners or their employees who exceed parking limits in place over most of the downtown district.
The limit is one or two hours in most places, but there are several 30-minute spaces, too.
Regan deems 10 or 12 as "habitual offenders" people who violate parking limits almost every weekday.
Regan said that due to her schedule she does not cite those drivers every day; and in any case the tickets don't seem to deter these repeat violators, she said.
Regan hopes the collection agency accomplishes what her tickets do not.
"I hope people will become responsible and pay their tickets," she said.
Regan said she believes business owners and employees who violate parking limits do so out of convenience rather than necessity.
About a year ago the city designated unlimited parking on most of Resort Street and a section on the west side of First Street.
The idea, said Beverly Calder, former city councilor and current president of Historic Baker Inc., was to set aside parking for business owners and employees whose vehicles frequently stay in place for longer than two hours.
But Regan said she sees vacant spaces on Resort Street "all the time" even while drivers are exceeding time limits elsewhere.
"They just don't take advantage" of the no-limit zones, Regan said.
Calder, who owns Bella, a Main Street wine and gift shop, agrees.
But she believes the situation will improve.
"It's going to take time to get people to actually utilize that, to get used to parking there," she said.
Bill Ward, who owns Pizza a' Fetta, hopes Calder is correct.
Ward's restaurant is on Washington Avenue between First and Main streets.
He said overtime parking "is a major problem everywhere downtown," and that some of the most blatant offenders are business owners and employees.
During a telephone interview about 10 o'clock Monday morning, Ward said he walked to his front window to tally cars.
"Right now I count five cars that I know belong to employees, and they will be here all day long," he said.
That's more than one-third of the 14 spaces on his block, all of which have two-hour limits.
Ward said he parks on the west side of First Street, and never has a problem finding a space in the no-time-limit zone there.
Ward said that in the seven years he has owned Pizza a' Fetta, hundreds of customers have levied a complaint that goes something like this: "I would be here more often if there was some place to park."
He figures other merchants have heard similar tales, and yet some business owners and employees continue to take prime parking spots.
"You're taking your own customers' parking spaces," Ward said.
So why would merchants drive away the people who pay their bills?
Ward thinks the answer is simple:
"They're just too lazy to walk an extra couple hundred feet," he said.
Ward also wishes the city would enforce parking rules more aggressively.
Calder, who helped design the current downtown parking rules, thinks they have made it easier for customers to find spaces close to the stores they visit.
That's certainly been the case in front of her Main Street shop.
"I haven't heard a negative from a customer about having to park more than a few spaces away, and we've been busy," Calder said.
Randy Dodson, who owns another Main Street store, Ryder Brothers Stationery, said lack of parking remains a problem downtown.
Like Ward, Dodson blames not customers, but business owners and employees.
Dodson, who has two full-time and four part-time workers, said one of the first things he tells new employees is to park away from the store, in an area with no time limits.
He thinks there are plenty of those spaces for business owners and employees.
Dodson can't explain why some of them leave those unlimited spaces vacant, and instead park in places he thinks they should reserve for their customers.
"It's a frustrating situation," he said. "It's a mystery."
Dodson said he agrees with Ward that the city could deter parking scofflaws by patrolling more often.
But Dodson said he understands the city already has boosted Regan's position to full-time, and probably can't afford to devote any more police time to parking.
In a memo to Zimmerman, Regan suggests the city consider reinstalling parking meters downtown.
The city removed the meters more than 30 years ago, Collins said.
Zimmerman said parking meters are not a viable option now. Requiring people to pay to park downtown would discourage shoppers at a time when the city is striving to encouraging them.
"We're trying to make downtown free and inviting," he said.