Was Philly's parking amnesty program worth it?

The long lines of parking violators seeking clemency at the Philadelphia Parking Authority’s Filbert Street offices have cleared, but three weeks after the ticket amnesty program officially ended, its value remains a matter of debate.

From the beginning, the city-run initiative to clear unpaid parking tickets at a discount prompted debate over the fiscal responsibility of doing it vs. the benefits to people carrying unpaid fines. The PPA is concerned the program won’t even pay for itself, while advocates in City Hall praise it as much-needed relief for people fettered by fines and fees they couldn’t afford.

The city has not yet released official revenue numbers, but preliminary data show that between cash payments already made and scheduled payment plans, the amnesty program will bring in about $2.7 million. There may be some additional revenue realized in the coming weeks. It was budgeted to cost about $2.5 million though, PPA officials said, and the final tab may be more than that.

The chief advocate for the program in City Council, Jannie Blackwell, has said the dollar amount doesn’t account for the value to the 22,000 people who resolved fines that had lingered unpaid for years.

“At least we are grateful that we were able to do something to try to help some people,” she said last week.

People who stood in line for a break from their parking violations thought it was worthwhile, too.

>>READ MORE: Scofflaws by the thousands fix their tickets in Philly amnesty program

Rochelle Bilal, president of the Guardian Civic League, the organization for black Philadelphia police officers, said she wiped out $1,300 in old fines with a one-time $50 administrative fee.

“It benefited me to get rid of those old tickets from everybody else on my name. That’s fine,” said Bilal, of East Oak Lane, who is retired from the force. “But it wasn’t about me. It’s about the fact that they were hurting people in this city.”

She said she was relieved to see many people, who she said were blindsided by heavy fines stemming from old tickets, find resolution.

“They weren’t letting people know that this was happening. It hurt the people in this city by taking their cars away. People with jobs and kids,” she said. “And what they needed to do was give them an opportunity to resolve it.”

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
People wait in long lines during the last day of the Parking amnesty program.

PPA officials, though, question whether the program would ultimately bring in enough money to break even. Scott Petri, the PPA’s chief executive, has in his office 330,000 of the one million notifications of the amnesty program that couldn’t be delivered because the addresses were out of date. The stacks of envelopes, he said, represent about $138,000 in postage alone and are evidence of a program that wasn’t worth the trouble.

An audit of the PPA concluded last year that about $76.8 million in unpaid parking violations were outstanding since 2012. That audit was highly critical of the PPA’s collection efforts, and Petri’s display of hundreds of thousands of undeliverable notices is in part a response to that audit, which he said was unrealistic about how much ticket revenue the PPA could recover.

“You have a false expectation that you can collect this money,” he said.

>>READ MORE: Meter expiring on PPA amnesty program

From March 1 to April 30, people with parking violations more than five years old had the chance to settle them by paying a $50 administrative fee as long as more recent tickets had been paid off. Towing and storage fees from before 2015 also could be settled for a steep discount. Along with the 22,275 who had tickets addressed during the two-month program, up to 8,000 more may still benefit from the program. These are people who applied for amnesty properly but couldn’t be scheduled for appointments within the two-month window. Some may have decided to come in without an appointment and had their fines addressed, but others are likely still going to be adjudicated.

About $10 million in parking fines has been wiped out through the amnesty program, the PPA reported.

The PPA and Mayor Kenney had opposed the amnesty program, saying it would erase millions of dollars in collectible ticket revenue that would benefit the city and schools.

“The unfortunate truth is that in spite of any bump in revenues from participation in the amnesty, amounts forgiven under this program will inevitably translate into School District losses,” said Christine Derenick-Lopez, the city’s chief administrative officer, in testimony before Council’s finance committee in November 2017, in which she recommended a less generous amnesty program.

Council members who supported amnesty were concerned about the number of people in poorer neighborhoods saddled with tickets.

“It really does feel like, again, like a particular and targeted population pays for so much,” City Councilwoman Cindy Bass said in the same November hearing.

Blackwell emphasized that she had pushed for amnesty since 2016 because of complaints from people who couldn’t afford to pay their fines and found their cars booted or towed. Her interest in amnesty was prodded when the PPA began being more strict about enforcing unpaid tickets, inflicting 1,000 more boots on violators in October 2017 than the same month a year before.

“They wanted some way for us to try to intercede and to help them get agreements,” she said. “They couldn’t come up and pay all that money and pay their other bills, too.”

She thought the program should have been even more generous in forgiving unpaid fines, she said, but still believed there were financial benefits.

As of May 9, preliminary data indicated the program brought in $1.6 million in payments, with $1.1 million more expected through payment plans, Blackwell said.

The amnesty program was projected to cost $2.5 million, paid for by the city, PPA officials said, but will likely prove more expensive due to overtime expenses. Along with manpower, hosting the event included expenses for security and renovations to the building on Filbert Street that created offices and a waiting area. The PPA did not yet have an itemized list of expenses, authorities there said.

The PPA has a state-mandated formula for how revenue from ticket enforcement is distributed to the city and Philadelphia School District, and that formula keeps upping the amount the PPA must pay to the city before the district gets any money. For the current fiscal year, the PPA must pay the city no less than $39 million before it can give any money to the schools. Last year, the total PPA revenue from ticketing that went to the city and school district was $50 million.

By that standard, the amnesty program stands to provide almost no benefit to the city or schools.

Petri, the PPA head, touted the PPA’s collection rate in the high 80 percent range on tickets issued within the last three years. After that, though, collection rates decline significantly, and in place of an amnesty program Petri is proposing the Pennsylvania legislature give the PPA the authority to simply wipe out tickets more than 10 years old.

Even for people who participated and benefited, the amnesty program was a frustrating, confusing experience. Bilal said she still ended up paying for tickets in her ex-husband’s name. Robert Walter Montez Dancy also discovered fines that he says he never incurred but was responsible for anyway. He has been put on a payment plan, but said the PPA keeps finding more tickets attached to his name or address, and the amount he owes has ballooned since he showed up for amnesty in the early days of the program.

“I don’t know if the amnesty program was good for me, bad for me,” he said, “I don’t know.”