October 5, 2011

DFW cities hit roadblock in collecting red-light fines

The county tax office wants to be paid to do its part for a new traffic scofflaw program.

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Millions of dollars in red-light tickets in Tarrant County are going unpaid, and cities haven't been able to do much about it.

They can't issue warrants and arrest red-light runners caught on video because those tickets are considered civil violations.

A state "scofflaw" program is supposed to give cities the clout to collect. It can block delinquent drivers from renewing their vehicle registration until they pay up.

But as more and more cities try to take such measures to force drivers to pay up, they are hitting a roadblock.

Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright said he will consider implementing the program only if cities pay the county for the additional service.

While the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles flags vehicle registration renewals for refusal, Wright's office is the agency that would have to tell Tarrant drivers to come back after they have cleared their penalties. That's additional work for his clerks, and they may have to deal with angry customers, Wright has told Fort Worth and Arlington officials.

"What I've told both cities is it is not the responsibility of the tax office to force people to pay their fines," Wright said. "We would not enter into serious discussions unless we are compensated. That hasn't happened.

"I want to work with the cities to the extent that I can," said Wright, a former Arlington councilman. "But they also have to partner with me."

Wright said he also wants county commissioners to approve the program before he agrees to it. "This is a public policy issue and the interlocal agreements that would put it into effect would have to have commissioners' approval," he said.

The Arlington and Fort Worth city councils will consider whether to contract with the county for the scofflaw program, officials said. They are the first two cities to approach Tarrant County about implementing it.

Officials in some other cities have been caught off guard by Wright's stance.

"North Richland Hills hasn't negotiated with Tarrant County tax assessor-collector. We don't have to as far as what I read in the statutes," said Frank Fiorello, the city's technical services coordinator. He said, however, that he will talk with Wright's office.

Financial arrangements

Cost estimates for the county services were not available.

But Corpus Christi pays Nueces County $7.50 per ticket for the service, and the city of Dallas gives Dallas County $5.24 per ticket, according to Tom Herrmann of Phoenix-based Redflex Traffic Systems, which manages traffic light camera systems in a number of Texas cities.

He said the company does not participate in financial arrangements between cities and counties. But, he said, "we are willing to do whatever we can to help the process along, because of our belief in the impact that traffic cameras have on safety."

Fort Worth officials are working with the tax assessor's office to find some common ground, city spokesman Jason Lamers said.

"Obviously enforcing such a matter does involve time for his staff," Lamers said. "We have several thousand tickets that have been flagged in the Department of Motor Vehicles' systems. It is essential we come to some sort of agreement."

The city has about 60,000 uncollected red-light camera violations worth about $6 million, Lamers said.

Arlington has about $6.5 million in uncollected red-light camera penalties and collects revenue on only about 18 percent of the estimated 30,000 delinquent red-light tickets that are referred to a collection agency each year.

Interim City Manager Bob Byrd said the city is considering compensating the tax office, but discussions are preliminary.

Arlington Councilman Robert Rivera said the county's request is reasonable.

"If there are these fines out there, they need to be collected," he said. "There has to be an incentive for people not to run these red lights at intersections."

In Northeast Tarrant

Hurst is looking into asking Redflex to do the heavy lifting that will help the city collect almost $403,000 in unpaid penalties from 4,299 outstanding red-light camera violations, Assistant Police Chief Steve Niekamp said.

"The city can do it, but it's kind of involved, because you have to put flags on registrations with DMV and it's a time-consuming process," he said. "It looks like it's more efficient to let them do it."

But the city didn't know that the tax office wanted to be paid, Police Chief Steve Moore said.

"We were not aware that the county would be wanting a portion of the penalties," he said. "It's mentioned in the Redflex agreement, but it appears optional."

Moore said it's too early for Hurst to consider negotiating with the tax office because city attorneys are still looking at the value of the scofflaw program.

"When we get to that point, we'll discuss it with the county," he said.

The North Richland Hills City Council decided Monday to use Redflex to collect on overdue tickets.

The company recently found that almost 15,000 civil penalties from North Richland Hills' red-light cameras haven't been paid, amounting to more than $1.49 million.

Fiorello said the city pays Redflex for a service that includes every step: catching red-light runners on video, notifying them, accepting the $75 fine and depositing it into the city's bank account.

"If you don't pay it and it gets 90 days old, they add a $25 late fee and send a computer file to the DMV that flags the registration," Fiorello said. "... The vehicle registration renewal that you get in the mail will have a notation on it that tells you that you can't renew until you take care of back penalties."

The back penalty has to be paid through Redflex, Fiorello said, adding that Redflex gets an additional $10 from the city per paid-up scofflaw.

The city manager has signed an interlocal agreement with the DMV and sent it to the DMV for approval, he said.

"Then, I guess I'll go to the tax assessor to see what steps his office requires as part of this program," Fiorello said.

Until an agreement is struck, tax clerks are supposed to notify people of unpaid red-light fines but not withhold registration renewal, Wright said.

However, Richard Cook of Arlington said he was turned away Tuesday because of an unpaid red-light penalty. Cook said he is appealing the violation, which he said was his teenage son making a right turn without coming to a full stop, and was shocked when the court clerk notified him that he is listed as a scofflaw.

"She said, 'You have an unpaid red light ticket.' She said, 'You can't register your vehicle,'" Cook said.

Wright said that was either a mistake or a miscommunication.

Cook returned to the courthouse Tuesday and renewed his registration with an apology from the clerk.

Wright said that he has not been caught by a camera but that one member of his family has.

"We just paid it," he said.

Terry Evans, 817-390-7620

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7678

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