Seattle still hasn't plugged loophole benefiting parking scofflaws

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by CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @cjingalls

KING5.com

Posted on February 11, 2014 at 6:51 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 12 at 10:34 AM

City of Seattle officials admit that a program to crack down on parking scofflaws lets some drivers off the hook. Still, the city won’t be fixing the problem anytime soon.

“It involves work with a lot of city departments, sitting down with people,” said Nick Zajchowski, an analyst for the Seattle Municipal Court. “We want to make sure that we get the ordinance correct.”

Four months ago, the Seattle officials said they had a straightforward plan to correct the inequities identified in a series of KING 5 stories about the boot program.

The stories showed that hundreds of parking violators with ten or more tickets weren’t having a wheel clamp attached to their car as part crackdown the city announced in 2011. Motorists can get a “boot” placed on their tire if they have four or more unpaid tickets – and the clamp is only removed after the owner pays off the tickets or negotiates a payment plan.

At a September 26 city council meeting, officials explained scofflaws who do not have valid addresses on file are the ones avoiding the clamp. With no address on file, the city can’t mail the owners a legally required warning notice that they are about to be booted. As a result, these scofflaws were able to rack up hundreds of unpaid tickets without fear of the wheel clamp.

One car owner -- former Capitol Hill clothing store owner Sophia Phillips -- had 146 unpaid tickets alone. Officials said all the owners able to escape the boot program because of the address issue cost Seattle an estimated $700,000.

At the same September council meeting, officials described what seemed to be a quick fix:  Instead of mailing warning notices, parking enforcement officers would place a warning sticker on the offending vehicle.

But four months later, that still isn’t happening. Zajchowski said it may take several more months to get the program up and running, because the municipal court is in the process of hiring someone to manage the program.

“We are currently in the process of hiring the position that was authorized in the budget,” he said.

A spokesperson for Mayor Ed Murray's office said the mayor will look into the parking ticket issue. City Councilman Tim Burgess, who chairs the panel's budget committee, declined to comment.

In the meantime, hundreds of drivers continue to get a free pass from paying their tickets without fear of the boot.

“If it turns out that’s something that’s not really gonna happen and you can get away with it, that doesn’t seem fair,” said Chelsea Ruggiero-Diehl, as she paid for her parking recently in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighbhorhood.

State lawmakers are already trying to change the law covering another class of vehicles covered in KING 5’s investigations:  cars owned by rental companies. Records show that rental car companies racked up the most unpaid tickets in Seattle.

During years of lobbying in Olympia, the rental car industry received special exemptions in the law from parking infractions and red light, school zone, and bridge toll tickets.

One of those exemptions shielded them from a punishment that the Department of Licensing can inflict on any other car owner with two or more tickets.  By law, DOL cannot withhold car tab renewals from rental cars.

Bills introduced by state Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens) and state Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle) would eliminate that exemption.

Pollet’s bill would also have forced the rental car companies to pay for all unpaid parking and traffic camera infractions for their vehicles. But late Tuesday, Pollet’s bill died when it was not passed out of the House Transportation Committee.

Sen. Hobbs' bill has passed out of committee and is expected to go to a vote on the Senate floor next week.

Current law allows rental car companies to shift liability for a ticket to the customer who was renting the car at the time of the infraction. Rental car companies argue that they should not be held responsible for their customer’s tickets.

“The idea is the rental car company can go after the renter, but someone needs to pay the parking bills instead of leaving everyone else in Seattle to make up the difference.  It’s not fair,” Pollet said of language in his bill that would  have shifted responsibility for unpaid tickets to the rental car company.

Records show that 45 percent -- about half – of the tickets issued to rental car companies in Seattle remain unpaid for a loss to the city of at least $277,000.

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