SYCAMORE – The parking meters in downtown Sycamore cost as little as a penny, so it’s hard to say they’re particularly gluttonous.
Still, motorists regularly neglect to feed them, and they regularly receive tickets.
Although a ticket costs as little as $1 at first, neglect to pay it for more than 64 days and the fine increases to $76 or more.
Enough people don’t pay those fines that the city recently contracted with a debt service agency to collect on some of those past-due tickets. Since contracting with Lansing-based Municipal Collections of America in February, the city of Sycamore has collected about $14,500 in unpaid parking and other ordinance tickets.
Some of the offenders have owed up to $1,400 in fines to the city, records show.
How does someone rack up more than $1,000 in debt to the city over a penny for a parking meter?
“Some people have let them go for years, and they’ve owed thousands,” Sycamore Police Chief Jim Winters said.
He said that most of the debtors usually live or work in downtown, and either forget to pay the meter or ignore them.
In February, when the city began working with the collection agency, City Manager Brian Gregory said that about half of the tickets issued in the past six months had gone unpaid.
About 62 percent of the citations were for parking violations.
Winters said they chose MCOA because it had a reputation for being fair.
“It’s one of the things we’re pleased with,” he said. “They collect the fines, but they don’t use strong-arm tactics.”
One of the sticks used to prod the repeat offenders that MCOA has the ability to suspend the driver’s license of someone with 10 or more unpaid parking tickets. Since March, eight violators with 10 or more unpaid citations have been sent to collection, according to city documents.
He said that in the time the agency has been collecting the unpaid fines for Sycamore, the city has not received any complaints.
To get to the point where MCOA is involved, someone with an unpaid ticket has to ignore several letters from the city, along with the opportunity to have a hearing to contest the ticket. People have up to three weeks after being cited to contest a ticket, according to the city’s website.
“Each violation will get four letters,” Sycamore police Sgt. Rod Swartzendruber said.
If a driver ignores the ticket, skips the hearing and then ignores the subsequent notifications, the $1 fine will eventually become $76, Swartzendruber said.
The parking meters are not intended to generate a lot of revenue for the city, Winters said, but are an effort to make sure people have an opportunity to find parking in the downtown district.
“We have a thriving downtown,” he said. “We want to make sure there are opportunities for customers to frequent the downtown.”
Sycamore police write 20 to 25 municipal citations a day, Swartzendruber said, and most of them are parking violations, but others include seat belt violations, cellphone use or animal violations.
The city employs two police officers to monitor the parking meters and write tickets when they’ve expired. There also is a code enforcement officer in charge of writing citations for other violations such as overgrown weeds or animals.
The city pays nothing in its agreement with MCOA.
Instead, the agency adds a percentage fee to the debts it collects, Swartzendruber said. When announcing the agreement, Gregory said state law allows the agency to add a fee of up to 35 percent of the outstanding debt.
Winters said the city also has joined the Local Debt Recovery Program.
The system allows local units of government to collect on a debt when money is passing through the state, such as with tax returns, lottery winnings or the salaries of state employees.
“The whole process is a lot better for citizens,” Swartzendruber said.