COLUMN: City towing system penalizes those who can afford it the least

Thursday, August 19, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:44 a.m. CDT, Thursday, August 19, 2010

When my car was towed, I was holding a sick 2-year-old and waiting on my roommate to finish an exam so we could retrieve her newly-fixed car from a mechanic in Jonesburg.

I have an absent mind, so when my green Ford Focus was missing from where I parked it, I assumed I had forgot where I left it.

I soon realized it had been towed because, apparently, the check I sent to the Columbia Police Department earlier that week had not made it into the right hands yet. At that point of realization we had no car, I didn't have my checkbook with me and I didn't know which tow lot I should go to.

Fortunately, I am a student and have friends with cars and free time. I paid my bill to the city and retrieved my car within a few hours.

But this got me to wondering: How could someone with a similar income to mine, perhaps with a child and one car and a day job, accomplish this same feat? It could take all day, with the potential to miss work, headaches finding reliable transportation and the hardship of finding the money to pay the parking fees plus towing. All of these are commodities of privilege — usually not possessed by the people who can least afford parking or parking tickets.

It’s a real possibility that I’m dense, but I didn’t intuitively know where to go when I realized my car had disappeared. I had to use the Internet — another luxury not everyone shares —  to look up the number for the Municipal Court. I was told I had to pay my tickets before I could retrieve my car, which is logical. In the end, I had to go home, then to the courthouse, then to the towing office, then the lot where my car was stored.

So if I were without the privileges I enjoy as a middle-class student, I would have been waiting for the next bus, which would come 40 minutes after I paid my tickets at that time of day. Then, I would have had to walk about a block across Business Loop 70 from the stop to the tow office to pay my fine, and then wait again for another bus to get home, which might have stopped running at this point. And, because I-70 Towing doesn't accept checks, I had to go to the tow lot near the old Mid-City Lumber yard to pay with my debit card — a place no bus runs.

It’s a system that seems to only benefit the towing company.

Parking Supervisor Bill Lewis said Columbia used to boot cars. However, there was a small flaw in that plan.

“When you put a boot on a car — and we only had one — until the person pays, you don’t get any other cars,” he said.

A boot runs from about $189 to the more common $425 range. Certainly, a couple of the higher-end boots could set the city back upward of a thousand dollars, and towing costs the city no money. But towing penalizes the payer.

That would be justified if the penalty proved a good deterrent. I can’t conclusively say it is not, but the city can’t conclusively tell me it is. The Municipal Court does not keep track of whether people paid their tickets on time or late because it is not required by law, according to Municipal Court spokeswoman Shara Meyers.

There are a lot of things not required by law but seem like a good idea, such as providing quality education, feeding the poor, keeping your ears clean or breathing. I’m sure analyzing that payment information would be helpful when deciding if towing is an effective policy or if it is worth splurging for a few more boots instead of catering a few city meetings.

Lewis explained the city stopped booting because the one boot didn’t seem to be an effective measure all by itself. He said sometimes the boot would be on one car all day and then they would tow the car at night so it wouldn’t get vandalized.

“People like to write on them or leave crazy little notes on the car,” Lewis said.

I would have appreciated being towed at the end of the day, rather than immediately when they found my car. And it would help the people who suffer the most from parking tickets — the people who can’t afford to pay them or the meters.

I wish we knew if booting could be a satisfactory parking enforcement method, but like comparing parking tickets paid late and on time, we won’t know because Columbia never gave booting a fair chance.

Instead, the city chose a method in which it neutrally collects fees while generating revenue for towing companies and excessively penalizing offenders without significant proof it is the best method — or an effective method. 

Despite how you feel about parking enforcement, the current method creates huge obstacles in an already-difficult process for the poor and underprivileged people in Columbia. If the city wants to continue towing, it should be required to prove it is the most effective method and that it's being executed in the most effective way.

Molly Harbarger is an assistant city editor with the Columbia Missourian and has two little yellow envelopes sitting in the passenger seat of her car right now.

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Carlos Sanchez August 19, 2010 | 6:53 a.m.

So you think you are entitled and you want to be rewarded for breaking the law,being absent minded and being a struggling student?

Welcome to adulthood lady.

(Report Comment)
Tracy Greever-Rice August 19, 2010 | 8:04 a.m.

Did the City give you a receipt when you paid your tickets? If yes, then they do, in fact, 'keep track' of all steps in the parking process.

(Report Comment)
Andrew Hansen August 19, 2010 | 8:50 a.m.

"But towing penalizes the payer."
...and benefits the towing compnaies. The problem with the boot is that towing companies do not get a cut.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz August 19, 2010 | 10:04 a.m.

So how did those tow charges amount to the $65 of parking tickets you racked up or the $5 or so in change that would have prevented them?

Is the problem that the city had your car towed or that you didn't pay the fines for not feeding the meter? What's the best solution for the future?

(Report Comment)
Mark Stratton August 19, 2010 | 10:16 a.m.

I should be dumbfounded at this attitude. Sadly, I am not. This is the self-centered view of how the columnist believes she should be allowed to be irresponsible and then have an easy path out of trouble.

Feed the parking meters or don't park where there are meters. It's a simple solution, if you think about it. Boils down to a choice. The next choice is to pay the tickets when you get them, or even when you get reminded in the mail.

And finally, you don't need the fershluggin' internet to look up a telephone number. There's a printed alternative called the PHONE BOOK!

Your "commodities of privilege" viewpoints are just plain nuts. There is no privilege involved in putting a quarter in a parking meter. There is no privilege involved in paying a parking ticket. You're just looking for excuses.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin August 19, 2010 | 10:37 a.m.

Delighted to see this op-ed and its predecessor, "Columbia officials need to give more thought to parking system."

The city's downtown parking monopoly is an important issue for a number of reasons, not the least of which are its cost, capriciousness, and disincentive for customers of downtown merchants.

These columns help draw attention to the issue, regardless how readers may feel about individual fines and penalties.

(Report Comment)
Molly Harbarger August 19, 2010 | 10:58 a.m.

Hey, I'm the author of this column. Thanks for reading it.

I just wanted to ensure everyone that, as I said in my previous column, I do not think not paying the meters is a good action. I have corrected my ways and, when I get tickets, pay them on time now. I am not advocating disobeying the law.

My point was more that the towing system is not the only solution to collecting fees, because it could be more harmful than other methods.

Also, Tracy Greever-Rice, the city clears its database of tickets every 30 days, so while I know what I've paid in tickets, the city does not and does not keep that information long-term, which is what I am trying to say would be helpful in considering the best way to deal with late payments.

(Report Comment)
Tracy Greever-Rice August 19, 2010 | 12:34 p.m.

I have a flash drive or two I'd be willing to donate:)

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez August 19, 2010 | 1:16 p.m.

The towing process sends a message. If you continue to break the law IT WILL COST you more than it would if you had just paid the ticket directly at City Hall and been done with it. Better still do not be irresponsible and do not get tickets in the first place. Wow such a concept isn't it?

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro August 19, 2010 | 4:00 p.m.

("City towing system penalizes those who can afford it the least.")

Most expenses do.
Although, Mike Martin makes a good point about the city cow towing system.

(Report Comment)

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