Columbia drivers haven’t paid $1.8M in parking tickets & fees

Columbia Parking Services reports as of April 2023, there were 50,352 parking tickets with unpaid balances worth $1,863,654 (including fees). $1,862,672.50 is collectible.
Published: May. 11, 2023 at 6:00 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - If you have an unpaid parking ticket in the City of Columbia, you’re not alone.

Columbia Parking Services reports as of April 2023, there were 50,352 parking tickets with unpaid balances worth $1,863,654 (including fees). $1,862,672.50 is collectible.

If the city got the collectible money back overnight, it would add 18.2 percent to the Columbia Parking Services FY2023 budget.

Those figures only represent tallies since March 2020. State law prevents the city from collecting tickets older than three years.

The parking department is planning to roll out new enforcement tools in the coming fiscal year to get the money, which presents an opportunity for future investment.

The data

In March, WIS submitted a Freedom of Information request for all unpaid tickets the City of Columbia has records of.

The city provided data showing a total of 50,531 citations dating back to March 2020.

Columbia Parking Services Director Elle Matney said state law prohibits the city from collecting on tickets older than three years. She said those older tickets are written off.

As a result, offenders who don’t pay for their tickets in three years can dodge enforcement.

“We would hope that that would not be the intention of our parkers here in Columbia. Keeping in mind that your vehicle, if you continue to park could be subject to tow. If your vehicle is towed, you’re required to pay all outstanding citations before your vehicle is released,” she said.

Out of the entire data set, there are 50,352 unpaid citations worth $1,863,674.

However, that figure does not include the $981.50 in overpayments by offenders spread across 180 citations.

“You may pay a citation and your spouse has paid the same citation. We do have a number of accounts that would indicate a credit and we would provide those credits upon request,” she said.

After subtracting the over-payments, the result is $1,862,672.50 that’s collectible across the total 50,531 citations.

For comparison, the parking department budget for Fiscal Year 2023 is $10,238,702.

Almost 69 percent of the collectible money is from late fees. It comes out to $1,279,872.50.

The city adds a $10 late fee if a ticket is unpaid after 30 days. After 60 days, the city doubles any fees left unpaid.

The base violation amount is $582,800.

Expired meters led all other violations in both the number of citations and their value. It wasn’t close- the next most common violation was behind by $1,056,925.50 and 36,289 citations.

A similar disparity can be found in where the tickets are issued. Main Street, which houses city hall and the state capitol, is the epicenter of unpaid tickets.

It dwarfed the runner-up Lady Street by $147,460.02 and 4,380 citations.

“There are various areas and blocks throughout the city that are heavily utilized, there’s a lot of turnover along Main Street,” Matney said.

Toyota drivers racked up the most citations and the most amount owed, coming in at $248,483 over 6,783 citations.

Matney said there’s no rhyme or reason to Toyota drivers leading the pack.

Getting that money

In a May 5 interview, Matney said parking services send emails to offenders the day after their ticket if their email is on file.

She said if no email is available, the city uses Department of Motor Vehicle data to mail monthly citation statements.

The city has vehicles towed which have at least $100 owed after collecting at least three tickets over 30 days.

All unpaid fees would need to be paid to retrieve the car.

The city does not have a collections agency to recoup unpaid fees from offenders who rack up the charges but are able to avoid towing.

Matney said that will be changing in the next fiscal year.

On May 9, she gave a presentation to the Columbia City Council outlining two measures that are aimed at cracking down on unpaid fees.

The first is the city will be rolling out a pilot program for a “Barnacle”. The device is a large, yellow windshield blocker which would require payment to remove.

Matney said she expects the Barnacles to be rolled out in the coming weeks.

The second is the city will be using its existing relationship with T2 systems to implement a collections process.

In the May 9 meeting, Matney told the city council unpaid tickets will be handed over to collections on the 61st day after they’re filed. The offenders will have to pay $15 for the collection of each citation.

She said the annual software fee for the citations will be paid for by parking services, which is wholly funded by tickets and fees.

In the May 5 interview, she said it is an escalation of the city’s efforts.

“Yes, collections services to some could be a more heavy-handed approach. But again, we want compliance and timely payments. With any other utility, there’s an expectation for service rendered. There’s a fee expected,” she said.

Matney said the department recognized in the last year the unpaid parking revenue was an opportunity.

“There are many avenues in the department that we continually evaluate. Outstanding citations just happen to be one of them,” she said.

The available data shows the city was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

WIS asked why a collections process wasn’t established sooner.

“It’s a process of evaluating various opportunities in the department and this one has made its way to the top. The number is significant and we’re constantly looking at things that we can do more efficiently. It’s time-based, there are lots of projects, lots of asks in the department,” she said.

After the May 9 presentation, Mayor Daniel Rickenmann expressed support for bringing in the collection’s services.

“The reality is that because we’ve tried to do everything in-house for so long, it is so much to keep up with running the system and trying to do the collections old-school manner,” he said.

The bringing-in of the collections services will not require a city council vote.

What the money could be used for

In the May 5 interview, Matney listed several hypothetical uses for the $1.8 million.

They included:

  • Making the parking meters credit-card compatible
  • Replacing parking-space-specific meters with parking machines that cover city blocks
  • Facility maintenance
  • Going gateless in the parking decks
  • Providing vehicles with cameras to enforcers to streamline enforcement

“There’s lots of opportunities and options I think we could bring to the city, but again it’s setting priorities,” she said.

She said staffing is currently the department’s #1 priority, but the funding of positions and recruitment is already handled.

Matney said there are 15 budgeted positions for parking enforcers. The parking ticket data shows just seven enforcers in the field.

“We attend job fairs, we have various partners throughout the city, the city’s HR department is doing a wonderful job assisting the parking department to fill these positions,” she said.

WIS asked Columbia parkers around downtown about what they would like to see changed in the city’s parking. A theme was calling for additional parking spaces.

“With all the road work, and construction and us being a college town. I just don’t think we have enough parking,” parker Jen Evans said.

Columbia parker Lexie Bado gave a similar answer.

“More parking options or just make parking garages cheaper,” she said.

In the May 5 interview, Matney said the department will be presenting the results of a parking rate study in the coming weeks. The conclusions of the study remain unclear for now.

She said the study looks at the parking rates of nearby cities.

“We would be monitoring and/or adjusting our rates accordingly,” she said.

Matney said “dynamic pricing,” the process of shifting price due to demand, is also being studied.

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