Berkeley's Booting Scheme Creates Maximum Problems, Minimum Revenue

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday November 09, 2011 - 09:48:00 AM

Back to Berkeley, after the excitement in Oakland seems to have settled into a long slog, this week we have an example of the unintended consequences of the city management’s latest attempt to squeeze more moolah out of the citizenry.

You may remember that The Management, rubberstamped as usual by a complaisant group of electeds, has been sold Smart Boot, a computerized scheme for rapid collection of outstanding traffic tickets. Like many innovations which glom on to “Smart” branding, it’s a dumb idea which is looking dumber and dumber all the time.  

Case in point: we’re having some painting done by a friend who’s an excellent painting contractor as his day job, besides being a well-regarded acoustic bass jazz musician in the rest of his time. On Friday he needed to drop off some equipment at our house, so he parked his van, just for a few minutes, across our driveway.  

(No one ever puts a car in this driveway, because to get out you’d have to back into Ashby—and you’d better write your will first if you try that. Nevertheless, zoning requires us to maintain both the driveway and the garage which has never had a car in it since we’ve owned the house.) 

Guess what? That’s right, when he came out the van had been booted. Yes, Virginia, he had some unpaid traffic tickets, an occupational hazard of two professions which require unloading of either ladders or a bass at many stops. And no, he can’t transport these on a bicycle, in case the self-righteous among you are tempted to ask. 

However, he’d recently renewed his license, and he thought he’d paid all the tickets then. He called whatever number the booters gave him to ask about this, and whoever he talked to said cheerfully “yes, we make a lot of mistakes. You should talk to the city.” So he headed for City Hall. 

Catch 22: As you may be aware, The City is officially furloughed on many Fridays, including this one. So he had to leave the booted car in the driveway over the weekend, making it impossible for us to roll out the garbage cans in time for the Monday pickup. 

And that’s not the end of it. 

On Saturday night he had a gig in downtown Berkeley, for which he borrowed his wife’s car. (Oh, they also have teenagers to transport, especially the one who plays the cello, and that has caused them to get more tickets on that car.) 

Guess what? You got it, another boot job.  

And not only that, he reports that six or seven other cars were booted in the same block of Addison on Saturday night. That’s a few patrons of the fabled Berkeley Arts District who probably won’t be back any time soon. 

This is where the Puritans among you will pop their heads up and say, they all deserve it. They shouldn’t park illegally. If they do, they should pay their tickets right away, instead of putting it off until license renewal time. In fact, that’s just what my conscientious painter/musician friend said as he kicked himself.  

But not so fast—consider the social consequences. As a painting contractor, he’s providing jobs for three or four guys who would otherwise be unemployed, so when his business loses time and money over the boot incident it’s a net loss to society.  

As a musician, he’s attracting badly needed paying customers to downtown Berkeley and its various small businesses.  

As a parent, he’s raising two more musicians who seem likely to make a great contribution to the community, and as a husband he’s helped his his wife to get her degree from U.C. as an over-40 student, so that she now fills an important social service job.  

Balance all these social costs against the money raised for the public coffers by booting his vehicles. 

I don’t have complete figures, but the Smart Boot corporation gets $140 off the top from every transaction. The tickets themselves are now serviced by an out-of-town company which gets a piece of the action. All in all, I’d be surprised to hear that the City of Berkeley nets more than a couple of hundred dollars from each boot, while the average bootee probably pays close to $1000 to get his or her car back. 

Balance that against the city’s ongoing expenses. For example, there are currently 75 City of Berkeley retirees whose pensions exceed $100,000. The City Manager’s pension when he retires this year will be close to $300,000. The modest sums collected off the backs of hard-working people like my musician friend by the boot scheme are a drop in the bucket by comparison. 

Last year’s shortfall from uncollected parking tickets was only about $1.5 million. If that amount is collected under the Smart Boot scheme at a net gain to the city of only about $200 per boot, it will pay for no more than 15 of those 75 pricey pensions. 

And there will be 7500 outraged drivers with attendant social losses—is it really worth it? 

The Smart Boot system just started on October 18, but there’s undoubtedly already a good crop of horror stories as bad as, or worse than, what happened to my musician friend. If you have one, the Planet would like to hear from you.