Politics & Government

Camera would catch Tacoma parking scofflaws

Small enough to fit into a briefcase, the camera attaches to a car in just a few minutes and is capable of catching dozens of parking violators a minute by rapidly snapping pictures of each and every license plate.

“It’s going pop, pop, pop, capturing as you go,” said Tacoma Public Works Director Kurtis Kingsolver, who took a test drive last fall with PayLock, a company that makes license plate recognition systems. “Somehow it’s looking for those plates.”

Welcome to the possible future of parking enforcement in Tacoma.

The chalk marks on your tires downtown? Gone. And instead of a ticket under the windshield wiper, you might get one by mail.

Cameras might help patrol Tacoma streets by late next summer if the City Council approves Tuesday night a slew of changes starting with a budget modification necessary to purchase the equipment.

The system works like this: As a vehicle drives along a Tacoma street, pictures of plates are logged into a database. Software tracks the time, date and GPS location of the vehicle in the photo to find cars that have overstayed parking limits. Plate numbers are also compared against a database of parking scofflaws — people with large numbers of unpaid parking tickets.

Tacoma is a target-rich environment in that respect. Over the past dozen years, the city has accumulated about $8 million in unpaid parking fines, parking services manager Eric Huseby said. That number jumps to $14 million if you include unpaid red light or school speed zone violations.

When Kingsolver took a test drive with the license plate reader last year, it scanned more than 2,000 plates in the city’s downtown area. Of those, the system found 114 cars that belonged to people with unpaid tickets — 26 had at least five unpaid tickets.

“If we have individuals with 20 outstanding citations, the folks that are the most frustrated are the ones who pay for their ticket,” Kingsolver said. “Why is this person not held accountable?”

Today, a scofflaw would be issued another ticket. The city can’t say whether it would change that approach if it used the cameras, said Dana Brown, an assistant division manager with the city.

But information on the PayLock website suggests one possible strategy: a system called a “SmartBoot.” Cities lock the boot onto the cars of repeat parking violators. The boot is not removed until the owner pays the fine with a credit card over the phone. The caller then gets a code to unlock the boot. He or she is responsible for returning the boot to a drop-off point.

The city currently has six parking enforcement officers to patrol city streets looking for those violating city and state law — anything from having expired plates to parking without paying for it. A license plate recognition system mounted on a car could cover the same distance as 2.5 enforcement staff.

A vehicle-mounted system also would be able to patrol areas that have seen spotty enforcement in the past, such as Sixth Avenue, Dock Street and Freighthouse Square, Huseby said.

“Right now under conventional means, those are difficult to get to,” Huseby said. “It’s as we have available staff. If we have a specific complaint, we react to it.”

Buying the camera and staffing a unit would cost the city roughly $300,000 next year, Kingsolver said. The city could bring in around $500,000 in fine revenue, including from those who owe money to the city from unpaid tickets.

Brown said the city might have an amnesty period for people to pay fines at a discount or without penalties to give people an incentive to clear up old tickets.

If the City Council approves adding the cost of the license plate reader and its revenue to the budget, it could take at least six months before the technology hits Tacoma streets. The city would start with one unit, Huseby said, and could consider adding more later.

The city also has to decide how to use the cameras, answering questions such as what is the threshold of a scofflaw? Where exactly will the plate readers be used? Would the system be owned by the city or would the city have a contract with an outside company? How long would the city keep plate data?

Data is a particularly sensitive subject, Brown said. Already the data that parking enforcement officers collect by keying information into a handheld device is sent to the city’s municipal court.

“If we decide to go with (license plate recognition) we would have a data retention policy,” Brown said.

To help decide such issues, the city is consulting with its 12-member Parking Technical Advisory Group. Brown said there will be plenty of opportunity for people to voice opinions along the way.