Tulsa's Missing Millions: Unpaid parking tickets add up

TULSA - The city of Tulsa is owed millions of dollars but may never see that money.

Five years ago, the 2NEWS Investigators looked into tens of thousands of unpaid parking tickets. Possible fixes were mentioned, but as we uncovered, a new problem is keeping the city from collecting.

No doubt, a parking ticket can ruin your day.

"You were having a pretty good day and now you're not," said Jesse Lowe, who is in downtown Tulsa often.

And preventing yourself from getting one can be a chore.

"I run out every two hours and plug the meter," said Michael Benton.

Michael Benton owns a shop near downtown.

"I've seen a lot of people just grab the ticket off the windshield and just toss it," said Benton.

Turns out so have a lot of others.

The 2NEWS Investigators crunched the numbers and found the worst violator with 124 outstanding parking tickets, that's followed by a car with 91 tickets.

"It's really disappointing when you see that there are people here in Tulsa who have so little regard for the law, but then also that we are letting them get away with it," said Tulsa City Councilor G.T. Bynum.

The City of Tulsa is owed a whopping $2.8 million in unpaid tickets, not a huge change from the $3.5 million we found five years ago.

So why haven't the drivers who owe so much been caught?

The 2NEWS Investigators found two reasons. One is collection.

Back in 2007 the courts said they couldn't go after people because they had Native American tags or they couldn't locate people because they had sold their cars.

Those are all still problems five years later.

The ticket goes with the car, not the person. Tony Cellino, the city of Tulsa court administrator, says after five years the vehicle often changes owners, so anytime before 2007 they consider it "uncollectable."

So instead of going after $2.8 million, "What the real number is we're looking at for those years is
$1,262,000," said Cellino.

But the 2NEWS Investigators uncovered another snag that brings that collectable amount even lower.

In 2009 the state changed its computer system.

"We lost all the data on the old tags that they had so we're no longer able to retrieve that," said Cellino.

That's because up until then, the city of Tulsa was only recording the last six numbers of a car's VIN.

"I wish we had the whole VIN, but that was in place for years, long before I took over," said Cellino.

Technically, the city can't go after people with unpaid tickets before 2010.

Now the amount collectable out of that $2.8 million goes down to just $479,000.

That brings us to the second reason people haven't been caught: Enforcement.

Cellino says it's up to the parking investigators, the people you see who write tickets downtown, to see if a car has a history of unpaid tickets, and Cellino says in some cases, "They don't check the tag. Whoever issued it did not have a tow list with them to check it."

The tow list is a list of vehicles with two or more unpaid tickets. The vehicle is supposed to be booted or towed.

"The list changes weekly, and you're talking about a high volume of vehicles so it's the ability to query those vehicles and determine which one the judges have determined a nuisance in order to be booted," said Tim Cartner, a parking official with the city of Tulsa.

Hundreds of vehicles are on the list, that on paper stacks up to an inch thick. The parking investigators are supposed to carry that list around while seeing if meters have expired. Cartner says it's hard for them to track that huge list and do their job at the same time.

2NEWS Investigators took what we uncovered to Bynum, who said the problem with unpaid parking tickets has prompted him to support a possible solution: eTicket machines.

Right now, the machines are mostly used for speeding tickets, but Bynum would like to get at least one for parking enforcement.

He says it could solve one of the problems by making the tow list accessible.

"We're talking one or two devices here that will allow those people to do their job better and to bust people who are taking advantage of the system on a routine basis," said Bynum.

As a result of our investigation, Bynum plans to bring up eTicket machines in an upcoming council meeting. He hopes to encourage the council to fund them. The 2NEWS Investigators will continue to follow this story.    

The city of Tulsa has also been working on an overall plan to improve the parking problems downtown. As a result, one of the recommendations is also to add eTicket machines for parking investigators.

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