A coalition of groups upset about the way Wilmington handles getting paid for overdue parking tickets, booting cars and towing cars has emailed city officials asking for more information about the practices and to start a discussion about them.
“We see this as the beginning of what we hope will be a productive conversation, that questions will be answered, concerns addressed and we will all see positive outcomes,” the letter from the Wilmington Parking Coalition said.
Among other things, the letter asks:
- Whether the city can prove a deal that gives Conduent, the company that boots cars and handles collections from overdue ticket fees, 30% of the net revenue collected, on top of a monthly fee, is not being abused. Conduent’s Feb. 26, 2020, contract said it would be paid $100,206 a month, plus that 30% of revenue. As of February, the monthly rate was to increase to 2.5%. For that money, Conduent provided parking ticket processing, booting, digital services and permitting. Conduent gets good reviews from other cities that use it, the coalition pointed out, but also said the coalition didn’t know of other cities that paid the 30% on top of a contract.
- Why 4,000 vehicles were reclaimed after towing by First State Towing in most of 2019 or City Towing in later 2019 and 2020, but it appears only 35 owners owed the city money for past citations. Under City Towing’s contract with the city, the company can keep a car if the $25 fine isn’t paid in 30 days. Information the coalition received Tuesday after it had sent the letter indicates City Towing has kept 1,400 cars.
- Why there was a 60% drop in the number of parking tickets issued in 2020 compared to 2019 and why, while the city has been claiming towing was suspended in the spring of 2020, there was only a 3% drop in the number of tow release fees paid in 2020 compared to 2019.
- Whether the city can provide evidence that vehicle owners are properly notified when their vehicle is towed and those owners are given a clear opportunity to reclaim their vehicle.
- To review the Office of Civil Appeals rulings and notifications. In a virtual press conference before releasing the letter, a coalition member said that office is not a court and the people making decisions don’t have legal backgrounds. The letter said that it’s heard from people who were refused the right to go appeal to the Justice of the Peace Court and data shows few appeals, the coalition said.
John Rago, deputy chief of staff for Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki said they were reviewing the information in the email to make sure it has been interpreted correctly and accurately. Once that process is completed by the various city offices that handle different parts of the information, the city will respond, he said.
“To be clear on towing, we suspended towing for delinquent parking citations last March due to the pandemic and that remains suspended,” he said. “However, towing is still in force for blocked hydrants, intersections, driveways, loading zones and police are still towing for accidents, police investigations, etc.”
Danette Speakman, office manager for City Towing, said she had no comment.
Booting, towing and parking fines have been heated ones in Delaware’s biggest city for several years, and the coalition’s letter said its members wanted to start a discussion about the matters.
Coalition members include Kailyn Richards, policy coordinator for the Delaware Center for Justice Inc.; Coby Owens of the DE NAACP; Steve Villanueva, vice president of the Latin American Community Center; Robert Johnson, senior attorney of the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.; Drew Serres, co-founder of Network Delaware; the Campaign to End Debtors’ Prison; and Ken Grant, public and government affairs manager, AAA Mid-Atlantic.
The group has particularly focused on towing.
“We understand that the city uses towing as a way to get ticket scofflaws to pay for their parking tickets, but it looks like only 15 drivers paid more than the $25 release fee in 2019, and only 20 drivers paid more than the $25 release fee in 2020,” the letter said. “We are curious as to why the other 3,969 vehicles (plus other vehicles that were kept by the tow company after 30 days) were towed in that two-year period. Add to this the fact that the city claims to have suspended towing in the spring of 2020, yet the evidence suggests otherwise.”
The letter said information the coalition has gotten through the Freedom of Information Act shows that in 2019, 2,028 drivers paid at least $25 to the city to release their vehicles after being towed. In 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus shut down, 1,976 drivers paid at least $25 to release their vehicles after being towed.
“Given the fact that parking tickets declined by approximately 60% in 2020 (from 63,283 to 25,850), we’re also curious about why there didn’t seem to be a significant difference in the number of vehicles towed, ” the coalition letter said.
The letter points out that it’s asking about legal notifications because in a Wilmington City Council Public Works and Transportation meeting held Sept. 16, 2019, representatives from the administration stated that the city had failed to enforce the city towing contract, which required the tow company to properly notify drivers when the city had their vehicles towed.
“We are curious to know how many other cities offer a 30% incentive to a company with the city-granted authority to immobilize a citizen’s vehicle,” the letter said. “Also, can the city provide any evidence that citizen’s civil and constitutional rights are being properly observed?”
While the letter indicated that City Towing has kept an estimated 500 vehicles a year, new information from a Freedom of Information Act request arrived Tuesday and said it was closer to 700 per year.
Of the cars towed, 540 were towed specifically because of parking enforcement, about 840 by order of the Police Department and about 50 because of “pay lock,” the information indicated.
The new information also indicated that the city of Wilmington towed more than 3,000 vehicles in 2020, more than the coalition had estimated based on previous information.