Magazine

Collect on Your Citations, Instantly!

Lawrence Berman and Charles Smith

Those in the parking industry know there are three, not two, certainties in life: death, taxes and people who refuse to pay parking tickets. But is it possible to, if not completely eliminate, then greatly curtail this "Third Rail of Certainty"? Well, over the years, parking officials have tried valiantly, with some excellent results. The advent of aggressive towing and booting programs, combined with greatly improved data utilization via handheld devices and database management software, have changed the manner by which municipalities collect their outstanding revenue. This has led to increased collection rates in many markets. This is due to not only prompting payment through collections, but also that malleable form of communication known as word of mouth. There's nothing like Johnny Scofflaw walking by a bright yellow boot on Main Street to get him running down to City Hall to pay up!
But the municipal collection issue has reached a very interesting threshold. As the totals owed municipalities have increased, so has the level of the collection effort. Municipal budgets are stretched further than ever in most cities and that looming dollar total, owed to the city fair and square, would be mighty nice to have in the city's coffers. So although it's unpopular with motorists, booting has become the obvious solution to prompt real-time payment from motorists with outstanding parking or vehicle-related fines. Towing used to be the go-to solution, but the hassles of towing soon gave way to the almighty boot.
Still, municipal politicians have had to precariously balance their desire to collect these debts owed and their perceived positions as public servants. Citizen outcry has been a serious issue for politicians to contend with when making decisions on how to proceed with collections. The problem is now being taken very seriously by every city hall in the U.S. But the questions have always remained: Is there a better way? Can we do it without our citizens re-enacting the French Revolution? And what if there were no scofflaws, no lengthy collections, and even no boot lists?
Sound like science fiction?
Hoboken Parking Utility Director John Corea believes he has found a way. And in a market as unique as Hoboken, this is no easy task. Hoboken is a mile-square city nestled on the Hudson River, smack-dab in the middle of the country's most populous region. With an unbelievable number of cars per capita, city streets are always packed, and it is extremely difficult for residents to find on-street parking. The city implemented a resident parking permit program three years ago, which helped alleviate some problems. However, because the city has so many visitors on all days of the week, residents were often coming home from work to find absolutely no available parking. The city elected to implement an aggressive on-street plan to combat the problem. Currently, one side of many streets is reserved exclusively for resident permit holders only. Unlike some cities where booting is done only in scofflaw situations, Parking Enforcement will boot any violators of the city's resident parking permit ordinance regardless of their past history.
John Corea looks at it this way: "It's just not worth the hassle to chase after out-of-town scofflaws through traditional collections. We are not interested in creating an opportunity to not pay a ticket. I can ticket non-permit holders all day, but if they don't pay, and they keep parking in resident spaces, then I am just chasing my own tail." Corea has measured the success of the tactic as follows: "I'll tell you what -- these guys don't want to get booted twice. If it was just a matter of these guys collecting tickets, I would have a scofflaw list a mile long, and right now, we don't have a scofflaw list. If you don't live in Hoboken and you don't want to read our warning signs, it's OK; you'll be educated soon enough."
Correa estimates that more than 75% of booted motorists are nonresidents. This makes the actual booting process slightly more politically friendly for elected officials, but still leaves the Hoboken Parking Utility with inefficiencies, especially during its busiest times of year. With limited staff resources, the nature of a "traditional" aggressive booting program in any city puts a strain on the entire operation. First, officials in the street cannot be constantly looking for violators, because more than half their time is spent returning to violator's cars in order to remove the boot after payment has been made. Second, the violators are often extremely angry over the whole process, and there have been multiple instances of abusive and sometimes physical behavior. Third, the Parking Utility's small office staff is often overrun dealing with violators lined up to pay their boot-removal fee, which takes away from the staff's other responsibilities. Finally, the cost of actual boots is very expensive, and there is a constant need to replenish their inventory.
These factors prompted Corea to begin investigating other options, leading to a contract with a fellow New Jersey company, PayLock Inc., which has developed a system under the credo that there must be a better booting model for everyone involved.
A Parking Enforcement officer locates a bootable violator on the street and applies the SmartBoot -- a self-removable wheel immobilizer from PayLock -- and then calls into dispatch with the details. At this point, the officer's job is done, and he or she moves on to find more violators. The dispatcher enters all the details of the violation via an Internet interface.
Upon completion, a rep at the 24-hour call center is automatically alerted that a boot has been applied. The violator returns to his car and is prompted to call the center. The rep walks the violator through the multiple payment options and, upon payment clearance, issues the violator the boot code. The violator enters the code into the four-digit key pad on the SmartBoot, and it automatically disengages. The violator then has 24 hours to take the SmartBoot to one of the many return centers throughout the city.
The company supplies each city with all the equipment, software and training at no cost to the municipality. A small percentage or a flat transaction fee is charged through to the violator, and each week, all revenue is wired into the municipal account.
"What's great about the system," Corea says, "is that it enables my staff to become more efficient, while also letting the motorist get back on the road in about five minutes. I used to feel awful when violators had to trek in the snow down to our offices at City Hall, but now they don't have to do that. They can even get the boot off in the middle of the night, when City Hall is closed. Plus, we take checks by phone, debit cards, and manage payment plans. It's all the stuff we wanted to offer people, as it had come up a lot, but we just couldn't manage those services in-house right now. It was perfect timing for this."
Correa also plans to take advantage of the reporting and management options contained in the Internet-based software. He can check how many boots he has in the field, how many boots each of his Parking Enforcement Officers has applied and how much revenue the system has generated -- all in real-time.
Cory Marchasin, Chief Operating Officer for PayLock Inc., says the Hoboken installation is "a great example of using a creative approach to solve a complex parking issue. It speaks to the flexibility of our system. Hoboken is certainly not a traditional booting environment. The PayLock system was designed with scofflaw collections in mind, and it does that extremely well. But we realized quickly that with a kinder, gentler booting system come more opportunities to prompt immediate payment using our SmartBoot program."
What if there were no tickets at all? What if your handheld ticket writer just spit out a boot? Don't worry, that will never happen, but these kinds of multi-platform solutions are an emerging trend, especially when they give some consideration to the citizen. When creative problem-solving and technology converge, you see new solutions to old problems.
Private parking operations have been using creative implementations of technology for years to solve their issues with the "customer" in mind, as well as themselves. Now municipal parking environments have had to re-think their procedures. At the end of the day, the people on their boot lists are their customers.
So now the issue is clearer for municipal parking managers, as well as for its politicians: If your customer doesn't like the job you're doing, you might not get reappointed or
reelected.

From 1992 to 1997, Lawrence Berman was Assistant Commissioner for the Parking Bureau overseeing the activities of parking in New York City. In 1998, he became President of Metered Concepts, a research and consulting firm dealing with parking operations and applications. He can be reached at
muffin6666@aol.com. Charles Smith heads up the installation and logistics team for PayLock Inc., founded in early 2004. He can be reached through
www.paylockinc.com.

Article Abstract from February, 2005




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