An L.A. traffic officer issues a ticket near UCLA; the city recently seized… (Mariah Tauger, Los Angeles…)
The Los Angeles City Council last month seized more than $56,000 set aside for motorists who had successfully challenged their parking tickets, using the small sum to help patch a big budget hole.
Now some at City Hall are questioning whether those motorists, who were owed sums as large as $350, had enough of a chance to claim the money before it was rolled into city coffers.
Officials ran newspaper advertisements earlier this year stating the council planned to pocket the money from nearly 1,100 refund checks, which were mailed in 2007 and 2008 but never cashed. But those ads never named those who had money coming to them, nor did the city's own website.
"If our city's residents are entitled to refunds of money, then certainly the city should make every effort to make sure that the money gets into the rightful hands," said Councilman Paul Krekorian, who heads the council's Budget and Finance Committee.
Krekorian persuaded his colleagues Tuesday to take the first step toward creating a publicly accessible database showing residents whether they are owed money from incorrectly issued parking tickets. Depending on how exhaustive it is, the database could give car owners a way to secure refunds dating from well before 2007, according to one city official.
Jan Zatorski, assistant director of the city's Office of Finance, said the city has no deadline for the public to claim such refunds even if the money has been swept into the budget, which pays for basic services such as police and fire protection. "With the appropriate documentation, a person could still obtain a refund or unclaimed money even after" the funds were transferred, she said in an email.
State law allows government agencies to keep certain funds that sit unclaimed after three years. But first they must run legal advertisements — tiny notices that typically appear at the back of print publications — declaring their intention to do so.
City Department of Transportation spokesman Bruce Gillman said his agency would respond to Krekorian's proposal by identifying on its parking violations website people who were awarded ticket refunds as a result of City Hall hearings. Although refund checks are typically sent to addresses provided by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, the intended recipient might have an out-of-date address listed, officials said.
Fewer than 3% of the refund checks sent by the agency go uncashed each year, Gillman said. Still, other funds owed to the public are also being swept into the city budget. Since February, the council has voted three times to take a total of more than $1.3 million that was seized by police from people during arrests as recently as 2008. Zatorski said as much as $2 million more will probably be moved into the budget over the current two-year period.
Like those issued for the Department of Transportation, the legal notices prepared for the Los Angeles Police Department did not name anyone who is owed money. Krekorian voiced strong doubts last month that the ads would have reached anyone who is owed money.
"There's no way that anybody is thumbing through the classified ads, sees [the city's advertisement] and says, 'Oh yeah, when I got arrested I left some money behind,'" he said at a hearing devoted to the topic.
Despite those concerns, Krekorian spokesman Jeremy Oberstein said his boss had no plan to create a database for those who have money due from the LAPD.