BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The City of Birmingham is owed more than $2.34 million in unpaid parking tickets. City officials disclosed the sum to WBRC following an inquiry.
That amount is due on 130,181 unpaid parking tickets.
"I wasn't surprised," said Birmingham's Municipal Court Judge Andra Sparks. "Historically we've seen that we average a significant number of people who do not pay their tickets."
Parking tickets are issued by 10 parking enforcement officers with the city's Department of Traffic and Engineering. Some officers can issue between 75 and 120 tickets per day, though there is no quota.
And city officials say the purpose for the tickets is not the revenue. It's public safety and transportation.
"The problem is creating downtown spaces open and turned over for retail and restaurants," said Jimbo Woodson, Deputy City Attorney for Tuscaloosa. Parking tickets are intended to ensure traffic continues to flow through the city so travelers can reach destinations and businesses can serve customers.
On a recent Thursday around lunchtime, Birmingham's parking enforcement officer Catherine Owens illustrates the point. She drives by a line of cars she says are parked illegally in a freight loading zone outside of a hospital. These spaces are reserved for emergency personnel and hospital deliveries.
"All of these would be getting a ticket, every last one of them," Owens said as she drove by.
Most people pay their parking tickets, Judge Sparks said. "Thank you for making the system work like it's supposed to. Thank you for being responsible. Thank you for not making us expend more government resources in enforcing the tickets," he said.
But for the minority of people who ignore the tickets, Sparks says enforcement mechanisms are lacking in toughness, and that's partly why many remain outstanding. The biggest parking ticket offenders each have more than 100 outstanding parking tickets, with one person racking up 271 unpaid parking tickets and owing more than $4,000.
The top ten biggest parking ticket offenders collectively owe more than $35,000 and have 1,543 outstanding parking tickets.
Parking tickets are not treated as criminal offences in Birmingham. Sparks says no one will be arrested or sent to jail. Unpaid parking tickets in Birmingham are not passed on to collections agencies to be reflected on credit reports.
After a sweeping 2015 settlement with state Attorneys General, the country's three largest credit reporting agencies agreed to sweeping reforms. According to information provided by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the settlement prohibits the credit reporting agencies from accepting reports of debt relating to failure to pay certain fines, tickets, and other financial obligations that did not come from an agreement to pay.
Instead, Sparks has a small staff at the municipal court that contact the biggest parking ticket offenders with demands that payment be made.
Amounts outstanding can be referred to the city's law department to initiate a civil lawsuit to collect on the debt, but Sparks says that has not happened yet.
"I don't know that there's enough teeth in the law right now to force people to pay," Sparks said. "If I could suggest or whisper in the legislature's ear, I would suggest tying these parking tickets to something significant like renewing a car tag."
Woodson says tying parking ticket enforcement to car tags would require coordinated effort with the state Department of Revenue, which could be difficult.
Woodson was the primary drafter of House Bill 213 (2017) currently pending in the legislature. The bill, created by Woodson with assistance from lawyers at the League of Municipalities, clarifies that enforcement is a civil mechanism only, not criminal, and streamlines the enforcement process.
After three unpaid parking tickets, the bill allows cities to boot a car when it's parked on a public street. If the tickets remain unpaid, cities could tow the booted cars to an impound lot. After 21 days, cars could be auctioned.
"It's common among all cities," Woodson says of trouble with parking enforcement. He was not surprised to hear that Birmingham had more than $2.3 million in unpaid parking tickets. "Birmingham is much bigger than Tuscaloosa and it's just so difficult to get people to pay," he said.
"That is money that could be spent in transit, that's money that could be spent in schools, that's money that could be spent with police or fire or with first responders," said Representative Jack Williams who sponsored Woodson's bill this year. A similar bill was filed last year by Representative Christopher England.
Williams is not optimistic the bill will be signed into law.
"Based on what I saw in committee, the response I got in committee, I think we're probably going to have to work on this for another year and come back in 2018 and try to pass it," said Williams.
In the meantime, Judge Sparks encourages people with parking tickets to pay the fine. "It's the right thing to do," he said.