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Parking Ticket Payers Get Fine News

Santa Monica says it has nearly $1 million from people who paid their fines twice. The check is in the mail -- if the city can find you.

September 23, 2006|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Those of you who try to weasel out of paying your parking tickets -- and you know who you are -- might find it hard to believe that some people actually pay twice.

Santa Monica officials announced this week that they will attempt to refund nearly $1 million that motorists have inadvertently overpaid for parking citations during the last three years.

The overpayments were discovered during a review of parking revenues, said City Manager P. Lamont Ewell.

Santa Monica is the latest city to grapple with parking overpayments. Many cities contract with private firms for collections and aren't always aware when parking violators pay more than once.

Finding those who deserve refunds could prove difficult.

About 80% of those who overpaid for Santa Monica tickets were from out of town. That could mean anywhere from Venice (the one in California) to Venezuela. Many were driving rental cars, further complicating the search.

Overpayments occur for different reasons, Santa Monica officials said. Typically, an individual might pay a citation after the due date and then pay a second time after receiving a balance-due notice. A spouse or parent might see a late notice and pay the fee without realizing that it had been paid.

A typical parking ticket in the city is $47.

In other instances, the Department of Motor Vehicles collects citation payments when someone registers a vehicle, even if that person has already paid the city directly. The DMV later remits such payments to the city. Often, the motorist fails to request a refund.

The California Vehicle Code requires that cities process refunds in a timely manner, said Robert Andalon, an analyst for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

Santa Monica joins other cities that have tried to reduce overpayments. For the last few years, Culver City has used software that identifies a duplicate payment and kicks the check back to the person who paid twice. West Hollywood, which like Santa Monica uses Affiliated Computer Services Inc. of Dallas as its processing agent, requires ACS to identify overpayments so the city can issue refunds, said Oscar Delgado, the city's parking manager.

Los Angeles, which for more than 20 years has had a policy of actively refunding overpayments on the 3.2 million citations it issues each year, recently began offering motorists the option of applying the extra amount toward other outstanding tickets or requesting a refund. Santa Monica plans to do the same.

Santa Monica officials found that some cities retain overpayments, returning the money only if asked. In the past, Santa Monica has relied on that method.

"It doesn't matter what others are doing," Ewell said. The new program "is the right thing to do."

Eva Uren, Santa Monica's revenue manager, recently uncovered the problem after consulting with payment processor ACS.

After Uren randomly checked the city's records, officials computed that motorists had made about 18,000 overpayments totaling $950,000 for which refunds had not been sought.

Santa Monica's new program goes into effect Oct. 1. The city will send a notice to individuals or businesses that have overpaid, asking them to verify that they are the ones who sent the payment. The city will then send a refund.

Ewell said the city also will work to improve its data systems so that it can more easily identify those who overpay. In the meantime, Ewell said, city employees will manually compare records and begin returning any overpayments.

City staffers expect to issue as many as 400 refunds totaling $20,000 each month.

The city issues about 320,000 parking tickets a year. It expects this fiscal year to collect $12.6 million from parking tickets, with $4.6 million needed to cover operating expenses. The $8 million in revenues will represent a small fraction of Santa Monica's $240-million general fund, which pays for essential city services.

Ewell said the city had not found anything to suggest that ACS was doing anything inappropriate. Rather, he said, "I think it speaks to a lack of internal controls in our system, and probably the systems throughout most municipalities."

Starting Oct. 1, motorists who believe that they have overpaid the city of Santa Monica for a parking citation should fill out a verification form at www.smgov.net.

martha.groves@latimes.com

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