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Parking: A Fine Mess

Los Angeles County is becoming a fine place. As in huge fines and penalties. With the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa talking about potentially cutting 4,000 city jobs, there could be plenty of pain to go around.

But L.A. residents didn't realize they'd be sharing that pain quite so personally, through what seems like death by a thousand fines.

In January, when the mayor's budget office announced a financial plan, city officials said they had no plans to ask voters for a tax increase. While Villaraigosa hasn't exactly said "Read my lips, no new taxes," political experts believe that extra local taxes would be a tough sell to voters.

So what to do when, as Professor Thomas Griffith of USC Law School puts it, "we're running out of tricks"? Raise fines and fees: parking tickets coupled with meters that now must be fed well after 6 p.m.; "Denver" boots on cars; tow-away surcharges; littering fines. The beauty is, none of it has to go before L.A. voters.

"In some instances [we] are raising fines rather than going back and raising taxes," says L.A. City Councilman Dennis Zine. Fines can even be defended on the basis of guilt — violators don't have an organized constituency.

The stiff fines, amid 13.2 percent unemployment, may be fueling a new interest in performing community service. In Van Nuys Superior Court in January, a woman pleaded guilty to dropping a cup on the sidewalk. She got a $10 fine — and eight hours of community service picking up trash. She was okay with it, she later said, "as long as they don't send me back to jail."

In the city budget, which was $7.1 billion in fiscal year 2008-2009, property taxes bring in 23 cents of each dollar, and sales taxes 4.7 cents. Another 14.3 cents comes from "other fees, fines and taxes," including 2.1 cents from parking fines, which alone are almost as important to city coffers as sales tax.

With revenues from once-lucrative sources like hotel-bed taxes and sales tax plummeting, and little help from the county, state and bailout-bound federal government, the mayor and City Council are looking at even bigger fines — which some say is patently unfair in an economic downturn.

"Fines should not be designed for revenue raising," says USC's Griffith. "The reason we should have fines is to discourage wrongful behavior. But fines are intrusive, require court time, and there's a certain randomness to getting caught."

He prefers taxes, because fines are regressive: "Poor people pay a higher proportion of their income in fines than they would in tax," says Griffith. "For a person making $200,000, a $500 traffic fine is a tiny part of their income. If you make $30K, that $500 is a huge portion of your income. There are very few taxes we pass that ask lower-income people to pay a higher portion of their income than rich people."

In 2008, the City Council voted to raise the penalty for all parking violations by $5. Yet, as L.A. Weekly reported a year ago, the 15 City Council members, who each earn salaries of $178,789 per year, 400 percent of the median L.A. income, and drive free cars filled with free gas, made sure they are exempt from parking tickets.

In late 2008, the council and Villaraigosa doubled to $100 the "vehicle release" surcharge for every poor sucker who gets his or her car towed. The extra revenue from all this is not being earmarked for the upgrading of streets or the relief of congestion. It is poured into the growing budget-deficit hole.

The fine-driven crackdown hasn't played well with some. A contributor to the Spirit of Venice blog recently wrote about walking out of her house to find her car gone. She thought it was stolen, but after spending an hour on the phone, she learned it had been impounded for five unpaid parking tickets. It cost her three days of work and $1,036 to get it back.

Now, the City Council is considering a rule to allow cars to be either "booted" or towed and impounded (more likely towed and impounded, since the city would reap a daily $35 storage fee) after only three unpaid tickets, rather than five. The scheme would slam L.A.'s unemployed and poor, many of whom aren't paying tickets because they're broke.

The L.A. City Council, however, is focused on the cash it will reap: The plan to snatch cars after three instead of five unpaid tickets would raise an extra $60 million or so per year.

"I support it. If you're not paying your parking ticket we'll boot your car," says Zine. "There are some people who have hundreds of parking tickets. It's about personal responsibility. You should have paid the tickets."

But a fat new fine isn't worth much without the will to enforce it, and every day the city is aggressively ticketing and towing cars in neighborhoods across L.A.

On Ventura Boulevard in Encino, for example, each weekday after 3 p.m., onlookers can watch a city tow-truck driver hook up cars like clockwork just east of Hayvenhurst Avenue. Those being towed — shoppers who parked on Ventura but didn't read the signs carefully enough — beg for a second chance. Unemotionally, a tag team consisting of a traffic officer and a tow-truck driver points to the signs announcing no parking after 3 p.m. The price tag is huge: $394.50, for the $150 ticket, $209.50 in impound fees and $35 "per day" storage — which is charged in full after the first hour.

So some cash-poor residents are asking the courts for community service. "You can request community service in lieu of paying the fine," says Patricia Kelly, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles County Superior Court. "It's in the hands of the judge."

Community service is typically valued at $8 per hour, according to a courthouse worker — the California minimum wage. Working off a $446 red light–camera traffic fine would require more than 55 hours of, say, picking up trash. In addition, coordinating agencies like the Volunteer Center of Los Angeles charge an "administrative fee" of about $40 that the violator must also work to pay off, to cover his or her participation in 21 to 80 hours of community service.

Working off a fine might be looking better and better. As the Weekly was first to report in December, the city of Los Angeles plans to double the number of intersections with red light–violator cameras from 32 to 64 in 2011, potentially reaping huge new profits. While this move is, in theory, being pursued for safety reasons, it could double the tickets written — and fines paid.

Zine has proposed that traffic violations, starting with red light–camera tickets, be taken out of the court system and placed under city jurisdiction as administrative violations, which he hopes would cut costs to motorists from $446 to around $250. Not incidentally, the city would keep all $250, as opposed to the current setup of sharing each $446 windfall with the state of California and Los Angeles County.

Says Zine: "We'd relieve the courts, which have a furlough day once a month. We'd help the city recoup the money. We're doing all the enforcement, we should get the benefit. And the cost they're charging traffic violators is absurd. It's unfair and we should change it."

Long Beach–area State Senator Jenny Oropeza is already trying to block Zine's plan to lower fines for violators while keeping more of the windfall in city coffers. Oropeza describes Zine's idea, not ironically, as a "raid" on the California treasury.

Meanwhile, outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed his own bold raid on wallets by allowing cities and counties to add speed-detecting cameras to existing red-light cameras on surface streets. Motorists would be fined a hefty $225 for traveling "up to" 15 miles an hour over the speed limit, and $325 for traveling more than 15 mph over the limit. The state would grab 85 percent of the lucrative $397 million the speed-detecting cameras might raise.

Will Angelenos find a way to rebel? If Schwarzenegger's speed-camera scheme goes through, local drivers could take a page from Phoenix motorist Dave Vontesmar, who allegedly evaded at least 37 tickets generated by Phoenix's hated highway speed cameras — by wearing a monkey mask.