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Jim Kenyon: Hanover Chasing Late Parking Tickets

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Remember that parking ticket you got in Hanover a dozen years ago and might not have paid? Don’t assume that you’re in the clear. There’s now a good chance that Hanover officials will try to hunt you down.

Upgraded computer software installed in February now allows Hanover to track unpaid tickets issued as far back as 2005. And Sgt. Jeff Ballard, the town’s new parking czar, isn’t afraid to use it.

Ballard, a longtime Hanover patrol officer who moved over to the parking division in January, figured out that 14,500 tickets have gone unpaid since 2005. The outstanding tickets total $250,000. Throw in late fees, and the uncollected amount more than doubles.

And as Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin, with a gleam in her eye, told me, “there’s no statute of limitations on parking tickets.”

Until the updated software arrived, the town had little choice but to track parking violations by the offending car’s license plate number. If a motorist got a new plate number, “folks could essentially fall off our radar,” Griffin explained.

It’s now possible — with some help from a state police databank — to track unpaid tickets going back more than a decade by vehicle owner and home address.

Welcome to CSI-Hanover.

“I’m delving deep into the computer program, but it’s not a simple thing,” Ballard told me. “It’s very time consuming.”

But time is money, right?

Mark Washburn, a staff photographer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, is among the motorists nabbed early on in the parking dragnet. This spring, he received a bill for allegedly (and there’s a reason I say allegedly) not paying eight tickets between 2005 and 2011.

“I felt (the town) was wrong, but there was no way I could prove it,” he told me.

Outside of digging through old records to show that they had indeed paid, “there’s no way for people to defend themselves,” Washburn said. “I don’t even keep tax records that long.” (The IRS requires people to keep tax records only three years after filing.)

Washburn, a Hanover resident, has received his share of parking tickets over the years, but he’s no deadbeat. The town’s bill showed he had “paid in full” on other tickets, which start at $10 for a meter violation, but jump to $30 if not paid within 28 days. Under the town’s parking ordinance, which stretches 41 pages, anyone who owes $90 can get their car “booted,” which carries a $50 fine.

Hanover maintained that Washburn owed $270 in unpaid tickets and late fees. After he protested, the town waived the late fees, bringing his bill to $130, which he grudgingly paid. “I just wanted to be over with it,” he said.

Now for Hanover’s theory on why it averages more than 1,200 unpaid tickets a year:

Town officials believe some of the worst habitual offenders work in Hanover but live in Vermont. To beat the parking ticket rap, they annually ask the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles for a new — and free — license plate number, which state law allows.

And Hanover’s old computer software made it nearly impossible for the town to catch them. “Every time they got a new license plate, they got a new account,” Griffin said.

Griffin, who has overseen Hanover’s daily operations for 21 years, is about as good at her job as town managers get. But the idea that Vermonters would go to the trouble of acquiring a new license plate just to avoid unpaid parking tickets seems a bit far-fetched.

I ran it past Vermont DMV Commissioner Rob Ide. I’m fairly certain the thump I heard on the other end of the phone was Ide falling out of his chair. “This is a new one for me,” he said. “If this is going on, I’m certainly not aware of it. I don’t think the situation exists.”

A vehicle owner who requested a new plate number every year would raise red flags that the state would want to investigate, Ide said.

“After it happened for a few years, we’d think there was something going on in their lives that they didn’t want law enforcement to know about,” he said. “Something bigger than trying to avoid paying parking tickets in Hanover, New Hampshire.”

The crackdown is needed, Griffin said. Hanover brings in more than $300,000 in parking fines annually, but is still leaving thousands of dollars on the table at a time when state and federal money is drying up.

Still the town is trying to be merciful by waiving late fees when people ask, Griffin said. Hanover also made a “conscious decision not to send (violators) to a collection agency,” she added. “We don’t want it to impact people’s credit rating; we want people to pay their back parking tickets.

“Some individuals, however, are ultimately impossible for us to locate.” Dartmouth students who leave town after graduating immediately come to mind.

“Once we have culled through our entire list, we can decide if we want to pursue collections against any folks we cannot reach,” Griffin said.

I can understand Hanover wanting to collect on unpaid tickets — to a degree. But chasing down tickets from a dozen years go? Tickets that might have been paid, but due to human error at the town offices weren’t written down?

It smacks of a money grab. A rich town trying to get richer.

Sitting down with Griffin in her Town Hall office, I had plenty of questions, but there wasn’t time to ask them all.

My parking meter was about to expire.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.