Martha’s Vineyard towns may update parking ticket processing

— File photo by Ralph Stewart

Oak Bluffs and Edgartown are exploring whether private vendors might process parking tickets and collect fines more efficiently than Dukes County does. The county now handles parking ticket management for the six Island towns.

The towns rely on a system of handwritten tickets, which are manually entered into a computer program by county employees. While police chiefs in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs are not unhappy with the county process, they are eager to employ new technology to automate the procedure, eliminate inefficiency, and collect a larger percentage of the unpaid parking fines.

Municipal Management Associates, a private Massachusetts company that handles parking ticket management for 51 Massachusetts law enforcement agencies, analyzed the parking tickets written by Edgartown police from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010. In its sales pitch, the company said it would supply all the necessary technology, including handheld scanners to print parking tickets, computer software to track collection and enforcement, and then provide aggressive collection of unpaid tickets dating back 10 years. Municipal Management Associates estimated, in their conversations with Edgartown officials, that with lower processing fees and better collection rates, Edgartown would collect $14,000 to $17,000 more in fines, based on the number of tickets the department issues, according to police Chief Tony Bettencourt.

Although he has put the proposal on the back burner while he evaluates with selectmen whether to downsize the town’s entire ticket writing process, Chief Bettencourt said new technology and processing could improve the process and eliminate the need to decipher handwriting.

“It’s being more efficient,” Chief Bettencourt said. “I wasn’t so much looking for another company, I was looking for a computer process. We were getting discrepancies, people calling up and saying, ‘I got a parking ticket in Edgartown when I was in California.”

Oak Bluffs recently asked Complus Data Innovations of Tarrytown, New York, to analyze its parking ticket management and enforcement. Complus Data recently acquired Municipal Management Associates, and began servicing all of its Massachusetts accounts.

“If we had used this process in 2010, by the amount of tickets we wrote, we would have seen an $8,000 increase in revenue,” Oak Bluffs police Chief Erik Blake said. “The technology is amazing. These machines let you take a picture of the violation. It also scans the inspection stickers, so instead of having to chalk tires, you can scan the inspection sticker again and see how long the car has been there.”

The county charges $.50 to send an overdue notice for late tickets, and it can notify the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles that parking fines have not been paid. The registry can deny renewal of drivers’ licenses or vehicle registrations until fines are paid. Otherwise, towns are on their own to collect unpaid fines. The county sends Oak Bluffs a list of all drivers with five or more unpaid tickets. Chief Blake assigns an officer to write a demand letter to the scofflaws, but collecting overdue fines, especially from out-of-state drivers, is a drain on police resources.

“The push is either to have the county engage these kinds of modern practices or have the county engage the company,” Chief Blake said. “We want to go forward with the technology.”

Process and procedure

Beginning in 2010, Martha’s Vineyard Parking Clerk Carol Grant’s duties were adjusted so that she would begin processing the parking tickets issued by Island police departments.

The parking clerk has always collected parking fines, but until 2010, the county contracted with Plymouth County to process the tickets.

Dukes County manager Russell Smith said Plymouth County was falling behind on processing, causing problems for Island residents.

“One of the problems we were having was they weren’t being processed fast enough,” Mr. Smith said. “We could get the software and do it in a more timely manner. There’s better service.”

In response to a written question, Ms. Grant provided little detail about processing tickets.

“We process the tickets the same way our previous vendor, Plymouth County, did,” Ms. Grant wrote. “Police turn the tickets in and they are entered into the system.”

When the processing changes occurred after 2010, it required new software, purchased at a cost of $24,200, according to county records, from NetTech Solutions, a New Jersey company that provides parking management software and hardware.

“The payback is two to three years,” Mr. Smith said. “We get to keep some of the money that was being paid to Plymouth, to pay for the software.”

To cover the cost of processing tickets and collecting fines, the county takes a fee of $1.50 for each ticket, and keeps 15 percent of the fines collected.

As a result of the changes, both the revenue collected and the cost of operating the department increased dramatically over the past two years.

In fiscal 2010, the county collected $43,700 in revenue from parking fines, according to county budget documents. The expense to operate the department was $45,912.

In fiscal 2011, the county collected $62,000 in revenue, and spent $80,928 to operate the department. In the current fiscal year, which began July 1, the county estimates it will collect $67,000 in revenue, and spend $75,537 to operate the department.

The bulk of operating costs for the department are salaries. Ms. Grant, who also holds the title of assistant treasurer, splits time between the treasurer’s department and the parking department. Her salary for the current fiscal year is $66,354. One third of that salary, $21,897, is allocated to the parking department.

Senior financial clerk Donna Michalski also splits time between the two departments. She earns $33,152. Half of her salary, $16,576 is allocated to the parking department.

Ticket technology

The efficiency improvements the two town police chiefs are considering are very similar to improvements suggested in a harshly critical Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) financial management review of county finances. The 2010 review notes improvements since Dukes County began processing the tickets, including the ability to pay by credit card. DOR also noted room for improvement.

“Although the process operates smoothly, it appears duplicative and requires manual entry of data,” the report’s authors wrote. “Challenges also remain with collections and the number of outstanding receivables, which can be attributed to the seasonal nature of the Island’s population.”

The report offered a series of recommendations for local officials to consider, including adoption of an on-line payment method, providing a secure and convenient way to pay parking fines. Such an application is available for the software program the county now uses.

Also recommended for consideration were handheld electronic ticket devices. “Handheld ticket devices streamline the day-to-day issuance of citations and eliminate manual data entry,” the report’s authors wrote. The devices and software are also available through the county’s vendor.

The DOR report also recommends consideration of a deputy collector. “Despite the county’s ability to mark license and registration, a deputy collector may be able to obtain additional moneys owed the county or provide evidence that accounts are uncollectable.”

The county has not implemented any of these recommendations.