Public Comment

Council Votes to Record All License Numbers from Cars on City Streets

By Pat Mapps
Wednesday June 15, 2011 - 03:38:00 PM

The depth and persistence of Berkeley’s current financial problems suggests that those who are in charge of running the city lack foresight, hindsight, and perspective. The current approach to managing our City seems to be to increase revenue at all costs. The recently authorized ‘Boot and Release’ Program is evidence of a unitary focus on increasing revenue. ‘Boot and Release’ relies on highly questionable public policy to yield unspecified revenue and promises to be poorly designed and implemented. 

How ‘Boot and Release’ Works 

‘Boot and Release’ will use technology provided by PayLock, Inc., a New Jersey Corporation, to compel payment of delinquent parking tickets by immobilizing vehicles until their overdue fines and related fees are paid. The heart of the system is a camera that captures digital images of parked cars as it is driven around town. The images are scanned by PayLock’s Mobile License Plate Recognition (MLPR) system which locates the license plate number within the image and searches for that number in a database of vehicles with overdue tickets called the [Berkeley] ‘Scofflaw Database.’ An alarm sounds in the vehicle when MLPR detects a ‘scofflaw vehicle.’ The ‘scofflaw vehicle’ is fitted with a ‘Smart Boot’ that can be removed only after the owner has paid all of the outstanding tickets, a $140 fee that goes to PayLock, and a $500 deposit. Payment is made by telephoning PayLock’s Customer Service Center. PayLock then provides a code that, when entered into the boot’s keypad, will release the boot. If the boot is timely returned to a local tow yard in good condition, PayLock refunds the $500 deposit. 

‘Boot and Release’ Implements Questionable Public Policy 

MLPR captures an image of every parked car within camera range as it searches for scofflaw vehicles. This means that PayLock will collect information about the whereabouts of your vehicle when it is parked on the camera’s route. Many Berkeley residents are very likely to perceive this practice as an invasion of privacy and vehemently object to it on that basis. 

The ‘Boot and Release’ staff report is silent on other potentially objectionable issues. Will MLPR be used city-wide or only on normal parking enforcement routes? Will vehicles on private property be booted as they were in Bristol, Connecticut? 

‘Boot and Release’ was a Consent Calendar item, meaning that it was deemed routine, non-controversial, easily explained and expected to receive Council approval without need for discussion. The person who decided that the highly charged issues of privacy and property rights do not merit discussion lacks foresight, hindsight, and perspective. 

The item passed 8-0 on February 8, 2011. City and PayLock staffs currently are working out the details of ‘Boot and Release.’ 

‘Boot and Release’ Staff Report Contains No Credible Revenue Projections 

Even those willing to accept the threats to privacy and property rights that are inherent in ‘Boot and Release’ might reject the justification for the program that is contained in the staff report. The document reads like a report written by a technophile who is smitten by PayLock’s technology rather than a thorough and thoughtful analysis of a program that may or may not be right for Berkeley. The report summarily dismisses two pro forma alternatives and recommends a sole source contract with PayLock because no other viable vendors exist. 

The Staff Report on ‘Boot and Release’ contains no credible revenue projections. It simply refers to the results of a ‘proof of concept’ test as having identified fifty-four confirmed scofflaw vehicles that owed a total of $53,111.00 in parking fines during eight hours of testing. It includes no information on the number, ages, and values of the vehicles in the Scofflaw Database, nor on the number, value, and range of issue dates of the overdue parking tickets. This information is essential to developing credible ‘Boot and Release’ revenue projections. Telephone calls to City staff yielded no further information about the database. 

By contrast, when Oakland adopted ‘Boot and Release’ about eighteen months ago, it announced projected increased revenues of about $750,000 per year plus the value of unpaid tickets and stated that it had about 68,000 vehicles in its scofflaw database. 

Berkeley’s test results actually are discouraging because the average amount required to release each vehicle detected in the test is over $1,600. How many people can pay that much money on the spur of the moment? How many people will decide that the car isn’t worth that much money and simply abandon it? It might be even more discouraging if more was known about the scofflaw database. For example, how many of the vehicles listed in the database will never be detected by MLPR because they have been driven to other locations by students who no longer attend Cal? 

Another downside risk is that shoppers will stop driving to Berkeley for fear that their cars will be booted. 

‘Boot and Release’ Has Other Flaws 

PayLock is a New Jersey company. Let’s figure out ways to patronize local businesses and employ local people. The ‘Smart Boot’ might be put on vehicles that are parked legally when they are booted. The Scofflaw Database contains information only about vehicles with unpaid Berkeley tickets which means that the opportunity to collect all overdue fines for a vehicle booted in Berkeley will be missed. The label ‘Scofflaw’ suggests that the offender is flouting the law or refusing to pay his or her debts. The use of this term could lead to making policy that is inappropriately punitive. 

Here are Some Suggestions for ‘Boot and Release’ 

It is clear that the drive to raise revenue has caused those responsible for the City’s finances to lose perspective. The loss of perspective makes citizen input mandatory. In this case the input should be directed to City Manager Phil Kamlarz or to your councilmember. NEBA will submit to Mr. Kamlarz the issues raised in this article along with the suggestions below. 

Implementation of ‘Boot and Release’ is being planned right now. However, the program should be delayed until public input is solicited, received, and given due consideration. If ‘Boot and Release’ is implemented, it should reflect the public’s input. 

The Scofflaw Database currently is used by Parking Enforcement Officers to determine if a vehicle that is being ticketed should be towed due to unpaid parking fines. Perhaps the MLPR portion of ‘Boot and Release’ can be omitted but scofflaw vehicles can be booted instead of towed. 

If the fines, fees and deposits for booted vehicles prove to be as high as the test indicated, the definition of a scofflaw vehicle should be changed to a lower number of unpaid tickets. This change should reduce the amount due and therefore increase the chances of the fines actually being paid. 

The Berkeley Scofflaw Database should be analyzed and potentially scrubbed of inappropriate entries. 

There should be an effort to expand contents of the Scofflaw Database to include overdue fines from nearby cities so that all outstanding fines can be collected. 

The Release is administered by PayLock at a distant call center. Therefore, it is imperative that a City-run override system exists. This system must allow the owner of a booted car to escalate to a local entity in case the vehicle was improperly booted. This system also should permit the release a properly booted vehicle either on compassionate grounds or with an approved payment plan in place. After all, the City of Berkeley has no business driving the poor further into poverty. 

Once again Berkeley is pursuing carbon-centric revenue while representing itself as a Green City. How much ‘green revenue’ do we collect? 

This article first appeared in the spring 2011 issue of the NEBA News, the newsletter of the North East Berkeley Association (