Will Seattle's New Car-Boot Law Even Pay For Itself?

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The City of Seattle has instituted a new "scofflaw" parking program which will place immobilizing boots on the vehicles of people who have four or more unpaid parking tickets. Cutting-edge technology will be deployed, including roving meter maids, cruising the mean streets of Seattle, sporting the latest in license plate recognition technology. Although the city is expecting to rake in a cash bonanza of unpaid fines necessary to balance its hemorrhaging budget, the question is whether the costs needed to implement the scofflaw ordinance will exceed the revenue generated.

Depending on where you look, either 25,000 or 27,000 vehicles are in scofflaw status, with their owners owing the city up to $25 million in unpaid fines. Currently the city's only recourse to collecting that debt is by towing and impounding the offending vehicle if it happens to be parked illegally on public property.

Now, vehicles will have an immobilizing digital boot attached their wheel and an infraction notice placed on their windows. The vehicle owners will have two days to phone in to a remote call center, or their car will be towed and eventually auctioned off. Once their fine is paid, the scofflaws will be given a number code to dial into the boot, which will unlock it. Two vehicles with computer-aided license plate recognition technology will proactively patrol Seattle streets, scanning and clamping motorists.

If one were to rely on traditional press-release-driven journalism, the scofflaw program will bring in $4.2 million (sic) to the general fund over the next two years; $1.9 million for 2011 and $2.4 million for 2012. However, those are gross totals--not net--and they do not take into account the myriad of expenses that will be accrued enforcing it.

Neither the city budget nor the fiscal note attached to this ordinance give its total price. A question directed to the mayor's office seeking specifically how much the scofflaw program would cost to start up was essentially unanswered. Instead a generic scofflaw "fact sheet" from Sept. 14 was provided in an attempt to deflect the query.

Upon further digging, pages 378, 405 and 478 of the city budget revealed some of the expenses for the new program, which total a whopping $945,000; half of the projected scofflaw revenue. This includes $95,000 for two new parking enforcement officers; $127,000 to purchase equipment, scooters and radios; $206,000 for two parking-enforcement supervisors; $243,000 for overtime pay; and $192,000 for further equipment, including equipping two vehicles with license-plate-recognition technology. An additional $65,000 has been budgeted for "outreach and public education" to ensure that "race and social justice principles are incorporated into the program", as well $17,000 for additional mailing.

The city will solicit bids for a third-party contractor to run the program. According to other news reports, the only company which owns the technology needed to implement the scofflaw program is New Jersey-based Paylock, which apparently owns the patents for a digitized boot and accompanying call center. How much this bid will come in at is unknown, but one can safely speculate that it will be at least six figures.

Hundreds of wheel clamps will be needed, and each 16-pound apparatus costs roughly $500. Tim Killian, senior advisor to Mayor Mike McGinn, said that the city will not be purchasing the digitized boots. Instead, their leased cost will be factored into the bidding process.

The last time car boots were in the news locally was in 2005. Freelance "entrepreneurs" developed a racket where they would boot vehicles in private parking lots. The operators would then essentially hold the vehicle hostage until the car owner coughed up enough dough to pay the ransom. It was a shady practice that drew howls of outrage from the public and the media. The State of Washington quickly penned legislation banning the practice, making it a gross misdemeanor for private individuals or companies to immobilize another vehicle.

Which brings up the sticky wicket. Municipalities are allowed to impound vehicles, whether by towing or clamping. However, according to the Mayor's office, Seattle will be contracting out much of the work with the new scofflaw program to a private company.

"We believe that we have legal right to boot on the public right of way," answered Killian when asked whether the city or its contractor would be in violation of the 2005 legislation.

Killian said that parking-enforcement officers would not be going on private property or driveways to apply the boot, but would focus their patrols on public roads and right-of-ways.

People who have been clamped will have to telephone a remote call center to remove the boot. They'll not only have to pay off all outstanding fines and interest penalties, but also an administrative fee for the boot. Once the boot is removed, the violator will then have to take the clamp to a drop-off center in order to return the device to the city.

Residents of Seattle have a rather notorious penchant for civil disobedience. Furthermore, by definition a scofflaw is someone who just doesn't give a damn about petty laws. It could be far-fetched to expect someone who refuses to acknowledge their parking violations to suddenly be responsible enough to return a $500 piece of equipment instead of furiously chucking it into Elliott Bay.

The issue is compounded due to the fact that wheel boots are remarkably easy to defeat. A quick Internet search detailed a half-dozen ways to remove a boot, the simplest being to deflate your tire and slide the thing off.

Killian admonished any would-be Houdini that stealing, damaging, vandalizing, or removing the boot without proper payment would result in further fines and/or theft charges.

 
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