Debt Hunters

Debt Hunters
May 28, 2010

You can run, but you can't hide.

In an age where every penny counts, some universities are pulling out all the stops to collect parking ticket debts. Colleges are deploying a full arsenal of weapons, including the use of high-tech equipment to scan parking lots for violators, and the enlistment of collection agencies to hunt down deadbeats.

Take the University of Central Florida, where a recent internal audit revealed a three-year backlog of unpaid tickets totaling $379,000. That figure constituted about 10,600 citations, most of which were issued to campus visitors without any daily connection to the university. How to find them? Central Florida decided to get tough, hiring Williams & Fudge, Inc. collection agency to pursue violators who had likely long forgotten tickets from years before.

The results of Central Florida’s aggressive approach have been promising, says Bill Merck, vice president for administration and finance. The agency has already recovered $71,000, and “I suspect we’ll get a fair amount more,” he says.

As with other collection agencies employed by universities, Williams & Fudge is only paid on what it collects. In its arrangement with Central Florida, the agency receives 23 percent of whatever it recoups.

Central Florida’s increased collection efforts predate the deep financial crisis that has led to dramatic budget cuts across the state, but Merck says it’s “serendipitous” that the university was searching for cash under its proverbial couch cushions just before the recession hit.

Florida’s State University System does not receive any state dollars for transportation and parking services, so the brunt of the cost for parking decks and shuttles is passed on to students through per-credit-hour fees and decal charges. Thus, by failing to recoup parking fines, the university ends up increasing the financial burden on students. So while chasing campus visitors across state lines for $35 may seem excessive, failing to do so is unfair to students who end up with the tab, Merck says.

“We owe it to our students to try to collect it,” he says.

Not everyone in the state takes the same approach, however. The University of Florida, which has more than $223,000 in unpaid tickets on its books, doesn’t go to heroic lengths to track down campus visitors. The university sends letters to violators, but stops short of using a collection agency if the debt goes unpaid.

“We try to take a light approach with it, because you don’t want to risk being seen as tracking down every penny and dime,” says Steve Orlando, a university spokesman.

That said, Florida has some recourse for repeat offenders. If parking services personnel come across a vehicle with outstanding tickets, they can slap on a parking boot – colloquially known as “Das Boot” – and force payment.

The search for repeat offenders has grown increasingly high tech. The University of Texas at Austin, for instance, scans parked cars' license plates with specially designed cameras that alert parking services personnel of any outstanding violations. If the car has had an outstanding citation for more than 120 days, or has four or more total unpaid tickets, it gets the boot.

With 15,000 parking spaces and more than 75,000 people on campus each day, Austin needed new technology to keep track of offenders, and the cameras have helped immensely, says Jeri Baker, assistant director of parking and transportation services.

“It is a very valid way to find money that’s owed to the university,” says Baker.

And the money is significant. Austin currently has about 90,000 outstanding citations with a balance of nearly $560,000.

The cameras used at Austin are sold by a company called Genetec, which has increasingly marketed its License Plate Recognition equipment to universities. The cameras have been a tool for law enforcement and city governments for years, but it wasn’t until 2008 that Genetec designed a specific package of tools for universities.

“We do see [university interest] growing, so we’ve created a package just for that market,” says Chris Yigit, senior product manager for Genetec’s AutoVu cameras.

A single basic camera will run about $25,000, but clients often want additional cameras or software that can increase the cost, Yigit said.

While Austin has seen on-campus collections improved by license recognition cameras, the university is equally aggressive in finding the ones that got away. As of this year, Austin has employed not one, but two collection agencies. The first agency typically bills violators three times, adding a $10 fee the agency keeps on any collections. Things get more expensive, however, if Austin unleashes its “tier two” agency. The second agency will bill once a month for two years, adding $10 to the citation with each billing.

With all of its collection efforts, the university aims to protect the limited spaces that permitted parkers pay a hefty price to use each year, Baker says. There is the danger, however, that an exuberant effort to hunt down a few bucks could offend or alienate friends of the campus or valuable donors. Baker says they’ve thought of that, too.

“We have avenues for being able to deal with those kinds of things, and in general I try to use a fair and even approach on it,” she says. “Sometimes the departments themselves say ‘This person is really important to us; can we pay the citation?' ”

Editor’s Note: This story was inspired by the reporter’s own dealings with the University of Central Florida’s collection agency, which recently sought $35 for a ticket the reporter received while covering an event on the campus in July of 2007. He has paid his debt in full.

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