Drivers owe Port Chester almost $6 million in unpaid parking tickets, and now trustees are hoping to recover some of that cash with an amnesty program.
Like other towns and cities, Port Chester is looking for new sources of revenue during a still-sluggish economy. The village processes fines through ComPlus, a Tarrytown-based contractor. According to figures from ComPlus, there were $5.8 million in unpaid fines as of earlier this year.
After a long-fought budget process that will reduce the amount of revenue the village collects through property taxes, elected officials believe a well-publicized amnesty program could bring in as much as $500,000.
"There's money out there and if we don't go after it, we'll never know what we could have collected," said Trustee Sam Terenzi. "To me, it's a no-brainer."
Terenzi said he's had preliminary talks with Village Manager Christopher Russo and hopes to have details on the amnesty program ironed out by early June. Such a program is unlikely to launch over the summer, but could begin as early as this fall as out-of-town drivers and Port Chester residents return from vacations and time off.
Some early ideas floated by Terenzi include waiving late fees so drivers with outstanding tickets can settle their accounts by paying only the original fines, or reducing fines by a set number -- around 40 percent -- to encourage scofflaws to pay up.
Amnesty programs have enjoyed a revival during the recession, as towns, villages and cities across the nation look for new sources of revenue and elected leaders cope with their own budget shortfalls and reduced aid from federal and state government.
In Hartford, city officials signed off on an amnesty program for the first time in the city's history, waiving all late fines and court fees in an effort to encourage drivers to pay up. The city collected more than $200,000 in fines on delinquent parking tickets, according to the Associated Press.
Even big cities across the country, like and Cincinatti, are trying out amnesty programs in an effort to collect tens of millions in oustanding fines. Some of the figures are staggering -- in Washington, D.C., elected leaders are considering a similar amnesty program to recover at least a portion of an estimated $300 million in unpaid parking tickets.
Typically, amnesty programs are publicized with notices, stories in local media, and letters mailed to drivers who have overdue tickets.
Although the numbers are smaller for a village like Port Chester, officials say collecting the money is crucial -- and Port Chester is already depending on at least some revenue from outstanding tickets to balance its books. At last week's , the board's Republican trustees were criticized for already counting $200,000 in parking fines among projected revenue.
"The more prudent thing to have done would be to plan an amnesty program but not bank on the revenue," Mayor Dennis Pilla said this week. "You don't know that you can depend on that revenue."
Trustee Daniel Brakewood said he supports efforts to increase revenue by going after parking ticket scofflaws, but warned against counting on that revenue before it's collected.
He compared it to similar efforts to collect fines via the Department of Code Enforcement. In a similar situation, the board budgeted for $200,000 in revenue from code enforcement fines two years ago, but more than 12 months passed before money from fines began coming in.
"Don't count your chickens before they hatch until you have actual evidence that that money is coming in," Brakewood said at last week's meeting.
Police Chief Joseph Krzeminski urged trustees to be cautious.
"All I'm saying is, we need to research," he said when trustees quizzed him during the budget meeting.
Some of that research includes determining how much of that $5.8 million figure is composed of original ticket fines, since late fees would likely be waived under an amnesty program. Terenzi, an accountant in his day job, said he believes the original fines could add up to more than $2 million. Trustees are expected to take a closer look at the numbers as they debate the issue in upcoming meetings.
Regardless of the political discussion, drivers with unpaid tickets should expect a notice in the mail before the end of the year -- the board's Republicans have a majority, and Terenzi said he'll push for the amnesty program now that the village's budget has been passed.
"We'll see who's right and who's wrong at the end of the day," he said.
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