Officers hand out tickets but most fines go unpaid

Richmond County sheriff's Deputy Colleen Bowling patrols up and down Broad Street each weekday, handing out tickets to people trying to skirt the city's parking rules.

It's not difficult to spot violators -- usually people who park in yellow loading areas, fire zones or unmarked spaces. On a recent weekday, Deputy Bowling wrote at least five tickets in the span of about 15 minutes as she swept Broad Street and downtown side streets.

But once those tickets are written, there is a good chance they will never be paid. In 2009, 569 of 1,377 tickets -- about 41 percent -- were paid, according to Richmond County sheriff's Lt. Judy McMinn, whose record department processes parking tickets.

In 2008, about 38 percent of tickets, or 654 of 1,705 citations, were paid, Lt. McMinn said.

At $20 a ticket, that equals $37,180 in unpaid fines during the past two years.

"I'm sure some people know they can get away with not paying parking tickets," Deputy Bowling said. "There's absolutely nothing I can do with that."

Enforcing parking ticket payments is tricky, officials said. The city's Municipal Court, which had handled parking violations, was gradually eliminated after city and county government consolidation was enacted in 1996.

The Augusta-Richmond County code does not assign a court for contested tickets, providing little room for mediation. The ordinance states that violators who accumulate $45 worth of tickets or more can have their vehicles impounded by the sheriff's office, but that measure isn't used very often, Col. Gary Powell said.

"(Tickets) sit in files until they're paid," Lt. McMinn said. "They're not forwarded to anyone else."

City Administrator Fred Russell said the county has studied the issue but decided the financial benefit of setting up a mediation process likely wouldn't be worth the costs.

"We weren't really doing ourselves a whole lot of good financially," he said.

Given the current rate of fine collections, it might be time for officials to revisit the issue, Mr. Russell added.

It is unclear how much in fines has accumulated since consolidation. Lt. McMinn said her computerized records do not reach back that far.

But even if Augusta decided to pursue those who haven't paid, history suggests that would have little financial impact.

In 1995, during a budget crisis, officials tried to raise $300,000 by targeting violators who had not paid. Only $30,000 was collected by the end of 1996, even after the city sent letters threatening jail time for unpaid fines.

The Downtown Development Authority of Augusta has proposed a new parking system that would include meters and a new enforcement policy.

"When you don't have any enforcement mechanism in place, it's hard to give tickets," said Margaret Woodard, the executive director of the authority.

She said new sensors would help identify vehicles that have overstayed their meter limits. The plan, modeled after the system in Charlotte, N.C., also would include a mediation system. Unpaid tickets would be turned over to a collection agency, she said.

Changes to the downtown parking system are still in the discussion phase and would have to be approved by the Augusta Commission.

A new ordinance would be needed for the DDA's efforts to be more successful than those of the sheriff's office's, Lt. Powell said.

"Unless they establish a court for citations, it wouldn't be any different," he said.

Reach Erin Zureick at (706) 823-3217 or erin.zureick@augustachronicle.com.

PARKING TICKETS PAID

2009: 569 of 1,377 issued (41 percent)

2008: 654 of 1,705 issued (38 percent)

BY THE NUMBERS

41 percent of parking tickets paid in 2009, 569 of 1,377 issued

38 percent of parking tickets paid in 2008, 654 of 1,705 issued

$37,180 estimated unpaid parking fines from 2008 and 2009

Source: Richmond County Sheriff's Lt. Judy McMinn