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Bellingham to begin towing vehicles with several unpaid parking tickets

BELLINGHAM - Downtown's biggest parking scofflaw - 168 tickets and $8,015 in fines - is about to pay up or watch the tow truck haul the car away.

After years of watching some drivers ignore multiple tickets and the collection agencies they are sent to, the city will crack down and begin towing repeat offenders. Hundreds of cars with unpaid tickets could be at risk of getting towed, according to city records.

"I think it's pretty ridiculous that we have laws regarding parking and people just do ignore it, and that we're not following up and enforcing those kinds of things," said City Council member Terry Bornemann, who has made downtown revitalization a major part of his platform.

The law that allows police to tow cars with four or more unpaid tickets is already on the books, but the Bellingham Police Department has not previously enforced it. A total of 929 vehicles have four or more unpaid tickets and would be at risk of towing.

Meanwhile, officials are working to draft an even tougher law for the worst offenders.

Mayor Dan Pike pledged in July to fix the parking scofflaw problem. While the details haven't been finalized and the number of tickets needed to get towed could still change, police hope to start hauling off cars by mid-March.

In all, drivers owe a total of about $2 million, including fines and fees on unpaid tickets.

TWO-PRONGED APPROACH

Police records obtained through a public disclosure request show city officials are looking at a two-pronged approach. The first would be to enforce the current law, which allows the city to tow and charge owners a $100 administrative fee to get their car out of impound. That would be on top of regular towing charges.

Johnson's Towing, which contracts with the city for towing, charges $160 per each hour of the tow truck driver's time and $45 for each day a car is in its lot, owner Dan Johnson said. He estimated it could take roughly an hour to tow a vehicle from downtown.

The second approach is a new ordinance modeled after one used by the city of Bremerton, allowing the city to label the worst offenders "nuisance vehicles." Those vehicles are subject to impound anywhere in the city, and the driver doesn't get it back until all tickets are paid.

Lt. Scott Snider said police hope to start enforcing the existing law within about 30 days, although details of how it will be implemented are subject to change. And staff still needs to iron out administrative processes.

In a November memo, Snider wrote to Deputy Chief Flo Simon that officers would "undoubtedly spend several months focusing only on the most flagrant violators in this category." There are 116 vehicles with more than 25 unpaid tickets, he wrote.

The new ordinance is further out, but he hoped that, if approved by the City Council, it could go into effect by the fall. In the memo to Simon, he suggested that vehicles with 11 of more unpaid tickets could be labeled nuisance vehicles. Drivers could contest the label in front of the Bellingham hearing examiner.

Exactly what a new law would look like will depend on how successful the current law is in getting compliance, Snider said.

"We'll have a smaller group to be concerned with as it relates to the nuisance ordinance, if and when that is approved," he said.

The push is about getting people to park legally, not about money, Snider said.

"It's really not a money maker," he said. "We have processing work we have to do, and that's pretty much where that's going to go."

TOWING PROCEDURES

Linda Storck, director of Bellingham Judicial and Support Services, said her staff will build a list of parking scofflaws every morning, and the list will download to handheld computers the parking enforcement officers carry.

When they come across a scofflaw vehicle, parking officers will verify the information before calling for a tow truck and a patrol officer, to protect the parking enforcement officer from violent, angry drivers, according to a police towing guidelines document.

When towing for unpaid tickets, Johnson suspects his employees will come into contact with more unhappy drivers on the street. But delaying the tow would only increase the time, and thus the cost, to get the vehicle out of impound, he said. Legally, he can charge for a half day's storage as soon as the vehicle enters his storage lot, he said, but he'll provide an hour at no charge - unless drivers come in cussing and hollering.

Pike, who will approve policies on enforcing the existing law, said he supports some kind of amnesty program for drivers with outstanding fines. He suggested allowing parking offenders to set up a payment plan, protecting them from getting towed while they pay.

Storck suggested publicizing the new policy and giving drivers a period to pay outstanding tickets before the city starts towing.

BUSINESS IMPACTS

People debate what impacts the towing will have on downtown businesses.

City officials say the system is designed to keep drivers rotating through spots, so parking comes available for customers.

"When we have people that are constantly ignoring it, there's less parking for those people shopping (in) downtown," Bornemann said.

Johnson admits he stands to make more money towing under the new practice. But he sees it both as an accountability issue - if you get a ticket, then pay it, and if you think you were in the right, then appeal it - and as a benefit for downtown businesses.

"Where are the rights for the business owners that pay all the overhead for their storefronts but their customers don't have any room to park?" he asked.

Not all business owners agree. Some say charging for parking and ticketing is already driving away customers, and they point to the success of Fairhaven, where parking is free, as evidence.

"I think it's detrimental to getting people to come downtown to shop," said Steve Crosier, owner of Bayou on Bay, at the corner of Bay and Holly streets. That's especially true when people can park at Bellis Fair mall for free and not worry about getting towed, he said.

Towing is just going to scare people even more, said Crosier, who parks on the street near his restaurant but says customers can always find parking if they're willing to walk a bit. He thinks parking officers are already too aggressive in ticketing.

"If anything they should just leave it alone, the way it is now," he said. "Or lower the parking meter rates back to 50 cents an hour."

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