By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Dec 01, 2009 at 9:45 AM
More than 124,540 City of Milwaukee parking tickets are unpaid -- accounting for almost $60 million in lost revenue. Hold up, $60 million? One more time. That's right. $60 million!

These numbers amazed me. I wasn't surprised by the volume of tickets (Lord knows I've received my share) but the massive  outstanding debt shocked and, frankly, disappointed me. If a business were to let accounts receivable get that high, trust me, there's a CFO or CEO out a job. But, this is government and, sadly, it is what it is.

But, I'm a solutions kinda guy. So, I went to the City and asked questions.

Below are my questions to Cecilia Gilbert, permit and communications manager for the Department of Public Works. Gilbert responded to these via e-mail.

Have solutions for Milwaukee's parking payment problems? Use the Talkback function. Want to check if you have an outstanding ticket? Click here.  How much is owed to the City for outstanding parking citations?

Cecilia Gilbert:  Approximately $58.8 million is owed to the City of Milwaukee for outstanding, unpaid parking citations from the past six years that have not been adjudicated in Municipal Court. Of that amount, $9.6 million of the $11.7 million in violations registered to out-of-state vehicles lack correct owner information. Violations for vehicles registered in Wisconsin with no correct owner information total $21.2 million.

OMC:  What is the City doing to try to collect the money owed?

CG:  Parking debt is unlike any other debt collected by the City. All non-parking obligations have verifiable names attached to them, whereas parking citations are issued to a vehicle, not to a person. Identification of the owner of the vehicle is based upon the license plate number, but ownership information is not always attainable.

A common problem results when vehicle owners sell their vehicles and fail to remove their plates, relying upon the buyer to do so. The seller might not obtain valid identification of the buyer or even a signed sales contract. If the seller cancels their plate but the buyer fails to register the vehicle, there is no known owner name and therefore no way to collect outstanding debt. Even when a seller does obtain information from a buyer, that buyer may resell the vehicle before registering it.

OMC:  What if there was an error?

CG:  If an error were made either in writing, reading or data-entry of a license plate on a citation, incorrect owner information would be provided to the City from the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles, making collection efforts more difficult.

OMC:  Can you expand the methods being used to collect?

CG:  The City of Milwaukee utilizes a variety of methods to collect outstanding parking citations. A notice is sent to the last known registered vehicle owner 10 days and 28 days after issuance of a citation. When a hold is placed on a vehicle registration after 58 days, the state of Wisconsin sends another letter to the last known address from the DMV database.

People who fail to pay their parking citations in any municipality in Wisconsin are subject to having their registration withheld not only on the vehicle that was cited, but on any vehicle owned by that person. Therefore, there are many people who are unable to register any of their vehicles because they either cannot afford or refuse to pay their parking citations.

OMC:  What can the State do to help?

CG:  The State of Wisconsin passed legislation approximately three years ago that enables the City to tow any car that has been unregistered for more than one month whether or not it is in compliance with all other parking regulations. To retrieve the vehicle from the tow lot, one must show proof that the vehicle has been registered. For those vehicles that are registered but whose owners are scofflaws, i.e., those that have three or more unpaid citations older than 30 days, the City tows those vehicles. While required to pay the tow and storage fees but not the outstanding citations, a Summons and Complaint is served at the tow lot that mandates a court appearance.

After 80 days, an unpaid ticket officially goes into "secondary collections" and is given to a licensed collection agency to use all legal means by which to collect the outstanding debt including repeated calls and letters, skip-tracing for more recent addresses, tax refund interception, and credit bureau reporting,

The City's collection agency intercepts one's Wisconsin income tax refunds through the Tax Refund Intercept Program (TRIP). This obviously requires that the scofflaw both file and be due a refund that is adequate to pay all the debt. However, once certified, a person's name remains on the list for as many years as required to settle the debt owed. Since 2003, $13,530,000 has been collected through the tax intercept system.

OMC:  What's the total number of outstanding tickets?

CG:  There are 124,540 outstanding citations that are owed by vehicles bearing out-of-state licenses. Other than towing or credit bureau reporting, the City is limited in its capabilities to collect from these scofflaws.

Finally, some of the unpaid citations are issued to vehicles whose owners have since died, are incarcerated, are in bankruptcy, or who have moved out-of-state. The ability to collect any of these citations is greatly reduced.

OMC:  Any tips for us when we do get tickets?

CG:  When people are issued a parking citation, they may have their citation reviewed by the Citation Review Manager to determine whether the ticket is valid. To make an appointment with the review manager, one should call the number indicated on the citation: (414) 344-0840. Fine increases are suspended until the day after the meeting. Payment plans may be offered by the review manager that would allow someone to pay their parking obligations over time. People who do not agree with the decision of the Citation Review Manager may sign paperwork and go directly into Municipal Court in the same location, the Police Administration Building.

OMC:  Final thoughts?

CG:  The City of Milwaukee will continue to make every effort possible to find and require payment of those people issued parking citations. It is only fair to those persons who do make their payments as required by law.

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.