Fine Time

Terry Colon

These are tough times at city hall. When the City of Minneapolis holds hearings next month on R.T. Rybak's 2003 budget proposal, the mayor will be asking for a 1.7 percent reduction in city spending, despite skyrocketing health-insurance costs for city workers and a debt load that threatens to consume 9 percent of the budget. Rybak will also find himself in the uncomfortable position of asking for an 8 percent hike in property taxes.

This request will no doubt cause some property owners to bray. But speeders and some other minor violators of the civic order have even more reason to gripe. Under a largely overlooked provision of Rybak's budget proposal, the city will issue an additional $1.7 million in traffic tickets and nuisance violations in 2003.

As part of the mayor's proposal, the city's inspections department plans to hire two new "finders," inspectors who will prowl the city streets and alleys at night in search of home and business owners who have failed to take out the required permits for construction projects. The new program could generate some $300,000 in revenue next year. Those who fail to scrub the graffiti from their property, meanwhile, will face a projected total of $530,000 in special assessments.

The bad drivers among us will likely be forking over the most cash. This year already, the city anticipates collecting some $2.7 million from traffic violations. If the mayor has his way, city police will generate an additional $900,000 next year.

The official line coming out of city hall is that the crackdowns are not intended to be money makers; in budget speak, they are "revenue neutral." In other words, the additional fines and assessments are supposed be offset by the expense of added enforcement.

According to Deputy Police Chief Greg Hestness, his department will need to put an additional 12 officers on traffic detail to reach its ambitious ticket-writing goal. "From an ethical standpoint, we are not interested in being involved in an enforcement effort that is only intended to pursue revenue," he says. The plan to beef up enforcement is, he insists, a result of complaints from citizens and city council members about excessive speeding on city streets: "[The new revenue] is just going to cover the officers' salaries and a little equipment."

Merwin Larson, director of the city's inspections department, says the same logic applies to the proposed graffiti and permit initiatives. "I just hope we break even. I know it sounds like a 'gotcha' program, but that's not what we're trying to get at," he says. "We're just trying to impress on people the importance of doing things according to code."

Whatever the case, the city's plans to pump out more tickets, assessments, and fines comes just as new technologies are making it much easier (and cheaper) to collect such debts. Beginning next year, for instance, the city can add the cost of graffiti to a violator's tax bills. Last month, Hennepin County District Court unveiled a new computer system that will revolutionize the collection of cash from those who forget or neglect to pay traffic tickets and other municipal citations.

The Violations Bureau Electronics System (dubbed ViBES) automatically forwards information on delinquent citations to the Minnesota Collection Enterprise (MCE), a division of the state Department of Revenue. Under state law, the MCE can then collect the unpaid fines, plus interest and penalties, by taking the money directly out of an individual's tax returns. The MCE can also recover monies owed to government entities by seizing property or garnishing paychecks, but that requires that they go to court; the tax refund seizure is completely automated.

Although district courts could--and did--turn to the MCE to aid in the collection of unpaid tickets before the advent of ViBES, it was an unwieldy process, says MCE director Lynn Willenbring. As a practical matter, many smaller outstanding tickets were left dangling. "These sorts of fines are often difficult to collect, and many counties don't have the resources to pursue collection. This is an inexpensive mechanism that doesn't take a lot of resources," says Willenbring.

While ViBES is just now making its debut in Hennepin County, it has been in place in Ramsey County since March; and it's already paying dividends, according to Willenbring. In the fiscal year ending in June, Ramsey County referred some 100,000 debts to MCE, which has collected about 25 percent of them, or about $2.7 million.

Exact figures on how much of that success is due to ViBES are not readily available, according to Vicki Grasslee, an accounting supervisor at Ramsey County District Court. "But the quantities we're bringing in are significantly increased, and I only see it going up in the future," Grasslee says.

In Minneapolis, where speeders, permit violators, and graffiti victims will be facing ratcheted-up enforcement efforts, that spells out a simple message: Pay us now, or pay us later.

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