by Jay A. McCalla

Unbeknownst to most of us, our very own City Council made a national splash in mid-December when it voted to create an amnesty program for motorists with unpaid parking tickets that predate 2013, assuming they’ve been well behaved since. It was reported in US News and World Report along with the Associated Press, but it seems such forgiveness is controversial in some quarters.

Councilperson Jannie L. Blackwell, author of the amnesty bill, has spent her long public career personally helping the poor and disadvantaged. Annually, she hosts a massive Holiday Party for the homeless where they get music, hot food, haircuts, wrapped gifts and clothing. On her birthday, she hosts a giant outdoor cookout for the homeless on the apron of City Hall.

Jannie, an admired friend, knows the impact of a parking ticket on a person making $7.25 per hour. A typical $37 parking violation is more than five times what a minimum wage worker makes in an hour. Poverty very frequently means one will not have $37, which if not paid very promptly can more than double. That ticket may make the difference between having money for rent or not.

Many of Philadelphia’s poor work every day and still need the help of a usurious “payday lender” to make it until their next paycheck. On payday, the borrower gets to keep a much reduced portion of his pittance as a chunk plus an unholy interest payment goes to repay the lender. One $37 ticket would likely be enough to completely throw a very poor family into turmoil.

If the tickets total three, the owner’s car is booted or towed, adding stiff towing fees to the already unpayable parking tickets and fines. In that case, the owners (making $7.25 hourly) may never save enough cash to reclaim their vehicle, particularly if they’ve lost their job for lack of transportation.

Many of the folks from whom we want $37 are the very folks we know cannot afford school materials for their children or are likely to be “food insecure.” After all, 27 percentof our entire city falls below the poverty line, making us the largest, poorest city in America.

Not everyone supports amnesty, and the argument is made that citizens must take responsibility and pay the price for their actions. That argument embraces “moral hazard” plus a wee bit of jealousy: “Why should I have to pay, it they don’t.”

Notably, Mayor Jim Kenney, who is frequently identified as a progressive, staunchly opposed amnesty and refused to sign the bill when it passed. But, Bill No. 160111-A passed 14-3, making Kenney’s signature superfluous.

Kenney’s concerns revolved around the potential for lost income that would otherwise have gone to the schools. It’s a respectable position, but ignores the fact that the Philadelphia Parking Authority has failed to collect almost $600 million in fees and fines since 1990. The district is already being deprived, but not because of amnesty.

Perhaps, there could be a concentrated drive to collect from the many ticketed overnight delivery trucks that clog center city traffic. DHL, UPS, FedEx, etc., likely comprise a surprising portion of that uncollected $600 million. So, why pick on the poor?

Jannie’s amnesty is a direct response to the PPA going “full gonif” in enforcing parking tickets from 20 years ago. Normally, they are only enforceable for a decade. This new and greedy little twist makes a motorist liable for tickets going back to the Clinton presidency.

I mentioned that I am an admirer of Jannie Blackwell’s, but I cannot admire the fairly unclear and needlessly complicated provisions of the bill itself. For instance, my read of the bill is that Section 5 (b) (i) defines a motorist with three unpaid tickets as a chronic offender and, as such, is ineligible for amnesty. That may conflict with Section 6 (a) (b) (ii) that declares eligible “all parking tickets for which there’s been no response.”

These little glitches aside, it’s refreshing and encouraging to see Council take action that will materially benefit the poorest amongst us. City government gave the developer of the new Gallery tens of millions of dollars in grants. We forked over tens of millions to accommodate the Pope, the DNC, the NFL Draft, the World Conference of Families and others. I think we can forgive a few parking tickets, every now and then.

Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.

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