In February 2009, Josh Roberts of Seattle got a letter from a law firm telling him he owed $948 for a parking ticket he was issued in May of 2004 in Baltimore.
That's the month he had moved back to his home state of Washington, and he doesn't contest the ticket, though he doesn't remember receiving it. Like tens of thousands of city-anointed scofflaws, Roberts found himself in the midst of an aggressive campaign to collect overdue parking fines.
The law firm hired to collect has sent out notices to more than 80,000 people who have been fined but have not paid since 2006, and who not only owe the fine on the initial ticket, but late penalties as well. They're charged $16 a month, and penalties pile up without any ceiling. In short, Robert's five-year-old parking ticket was neither unusual nor something the city is inclined to forgive.
In April, The Baltimore Sun recounted stories of people across the nation in similar straits, owing hundreds of dollars on what were once $21 tickets handed out on Baltimore streets. City Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young introduced a bill back in May to cap the fines, possibly at five times the original penalty, but he hasn't even gotten a hearing yet.
Some lawmakers are awaiting a recommendation by the city's finance office, but given the more than $11 million in revenue that has been collected under the enhanced enforcement effort, and given the budget woes leaders are facing, Young said he doesn't expect much support.
"There's no other fine that I can see in the city where it accrues at the rate of the parking fine," Young said. "Five times a ticket I think is enough. I just don't want it to go on indefinitely. There's got to be a cutoff."
Roberts sent an impassioned letter to Mayor Sheila Dixon, explaining he tried to fight the ticket by phone but was told he had to come to Baltimore and go to court. He figured a lawyer would cost at least $1,500, he'd have to take two days' vacation, get a hotel and an airplane ticket, and maybe even rent a car.
"Although my case is strong," he wrote, explaining that he never got a ticket in the mail though he filed the correct change-of-address forms when he moved, "I have no guarantee of winning. All of this is for a $52 ticket. ... I cannot afford to stand on my principles. My voice will never be heard in court."
So Roberts caved and paid. He called the law firm handling the collections to make sure his check would cover the full amount. He said they told him it would, but then he got a letter saying that another $48 in fines had been added since his last notice. He called again to complain and got even worse news.
He actually owed $64.
Had he paid the $948 plus the new charges of $48, he still would have owed the city money, and the fines would have continued.
"Clearly the system is set up to maximize the penalties and prolong the process as much as possible," Roberts wrote the mayor.
The mayor's spokesman, Scott Peterson, said the rules state Roberts must come to Baltimore to fight the ticket. A spokesman for the City Council president noted that in contemplating Young's bill, "obviously, we have to look at whether or not it's fiscally sound to make a change at this time."
At the very least, it seems the city could make it easier for people who want to pay to actually pay. If they're given 30 days to pay the amount printed on the letter, it seems more fines shouldn't be tacked on in the interim.
Roberts implored in his letter, "I ask you Madam Mayor to please use my money wisely. I worked hard for it."
He questioned the city's efforts to reach him before the fines exceeded $1,000, saying it was January 2009 when he first learned he had gotten a parking ticket in May 2004.
"You get [the money] at considerable bureaucratic cost as I have wasted a lot of city worker time attempting to resolve this issue," Roberts wrote. "In the end you are taking it unfairly but legally."