IT'S FRIDAY morning in the crowded room where Philadelphians are waiting to fight parking tickets and recover impounded cars. Cliff Brenner has got a decision to make: Should I make a run for the bathroom?
Problem is, the closest public men's room is outside the waiting room, around the corner and in the parking garage.
Brenner, an affable postal worker who took the day off to be here, has been waiting an hour-and-a- half for his turn to pay his tickets and get his car back. He doesn't want to find out what will happen if he's not around when his name is called.
At the same time, the restroom issue is kind of pressing.
Brenner makes a run for it. Then he's back.
"Did they call any names?" he asks, frantically.
He's safe - a staffer calls his name a half -hour later.
Help Desk has come to the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication, at 9th and Filbert, because of a bill introduced by Councilmen Bill Green and Bobby Henon that would require the BAA to allow citizens to fight tickets without coming to this waiting room. The councilmen think you should be able to contest a ticket online or by phone.
We decided to see how the BAA works now. How long is the wait? Is everyone screaming bloody murder? And why do you have to leave the building to use a restroom?
First, the restroom question: We're told that there's no space for one. Simple as that. And don't worry: If you get skipped, you'll be called again.
The waiting room was packed at 10:30 a.m. last Friday, with only a few open seats. The rest of the seats were filled with people slumped over, propping their heads up.
More than half the people we spoke with didn't have appointments. You're allowed to walk in if your car has been towed. Others did. But everyone was waiting. The BAA seemed to be running 90 minutes behind for those with a scheduled hearing.
Many would have appreciated a chance to dispute their tickets without coming down here, and quite possibly taking off from work. Like Stephanie, a BAA veteran who says that she's racked up at least $500 in parking tickets and that she's been fighting them for years. She says that she's gotten tickets while looking for a working parking kiosk.
"Nothing works properly, and then we have to sit here and waste our time," Stephanie said. "There has got to be a better way to do this."
Folks in the waiting room were also frustrated that there was no way to tell when their turn would be. Though everyone is given a number upon checking in, the staff doesn't call out the numbers-it calls out names. Most agreed that a deli-counter-style ticker that lets you know what number is up would make a big difference.
YOU MAY NEVER LEAVE: To better understand the dreaded waiting room, we spoke with BAA director Jerry Connors. He told us that the main reason the wait can be so bad is that half the people who schedule hearings never show up. So, the BAA overbooks.
For citizens, this means that there's a trade-off. The overbooking means that you can get an appointment to contest your ticket sooner (the wait is two or three months, but it would be more if the BAA assumed that everyone would show up).
Connors said that the deli-counter ticker wouldn't work because conducting hearings is more complicated than selling cold cuts: Some hearing ex aminers can't hear certain cases. For example, an examiner can't hear a second appeal for a case he previously decided. He may be assigned the next one in the pile and that would skew the order.
FREEDOM?: Would Green and Henon's bill make life better for people dealing with the BAA?
Clearly, it would allow some people to avoid the waiting room. And it would enable people who don't want to take a day off from work to fight a ticket.
The potential downside? An easier appeals process likely means more appeals. Connors said that any change in process that increases the volume of appeals would stretch his staff thin. The BAA's 10 hearing examiners are already struggling to keep up with demand, he said.
Green said he expects more appeals if his bill is implemented. But, he claims, electronic hearings will go much faster than 9th and Filbert hearings (we watched two hearings and they lasted about five minutes each).
When we asked Stephanie, the BAA veteran, what she thought of the bill, she said she'd like the option. But sometimes, she said, "You do need a one-on-one."
Want a one-on-one with the Help Desk? Tell us your city service problems at email@example.com, @phillyhowl on Twitter or 215-854-5855. More columns at philly.com/cityhowl.
Juliana Reyes reports for It's Our Money, a joint project of the Daily News and WHYY (and funded by the William Penn Foundation) that seeks to explain where your tax dollars are going.