Millions in unpaid parking tickets, and uncollected fees for police services all turn up in the city audit. Administrators are beginning to pay attention.
By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
September 13, 2007
If you're looking for a little light reading, the reports from the City of Hartford's Internal Audit Department for the past several years are not your ticket.
But if you read them anyway, you'll find some serious issues facing the city, along with a few amusing tidbits.
On the amusing side, an October 2006 audit of revenue management in the Health and Human Services Department revealed $21,216 worth of checks missing for a month was sitting in an employee's desk drawer. The checks were immediately deposited, and among the recommendations from Chief Auditor H. Patrick Campbell was one for "restrictively endorsing checks immediately upon receipt." Good idea.
On the serious side, an October 2005 audit of collections for parking tickets showed Hartford had an astonishing 253,557 outstanding tickets with unpaid fines and penalties totaling more than $15.4 million. That number is down to 203,000 tickets totaling $12.8 million today, according to Carey Redd, associate director of the Hartford Parking Authority.
Still, that compares to about $6 million in outstanding tickets in New Haven, about $4 million in Bridgeport, and a measly $2 million in Stamford.
All three of those cities are using an EZPass-style technology known as "boot finder" that allows a marshal to drive the city streets scanning license plates until unpaid parking tickets or delinquent car taxes connected to a certain plate number pop up on a screen.
The marshal immediately calls for a tow truck, and the owner doesn't get his car back until the ticket and/or back taxes are paid.
"We're real aggressive on our motor vehicle tax and scofflaw outstanding debt," said an enthusiastic Bridgeport Mayor John M. Fabrizi.
The Hartford Parking Authority has so far declined to utilize the boot finder technology. Carey said it's primarily designed for tracking down those who owe taxes on their cars, not parking fines, and that the Parking Authority is making good progress on collections without it.
The Bridgeport example isn't lost, however, on Hartford's chief operating officer, Lee C. Erdmann. Erdmann recognizes that in Hartford, one of the poorest cities in the nation for its size, it's important to chase down all potential revenue.
"We continue to be a fiscally challenged community," said Erdmann. "Every dollar we can collect that should be collected we are resolved to make our best effort to collect going forward."
When the auditor's report on parking tickets was issued in 2005, Erdmann said the city had a system of ticket appeals that "frankly did not comport with state statute, so we completely revamped that."
Tickets now clearly show the deadline for appeals. The Morgan Street Garage has been set up with hearing officers and a full-time person to schedule all hearings.
About a year ago, the city also moved the responsibility for collecting parking tickets from the tax collection office in the Finance Department to the Hartford Parking Authority.
"Over the years the staff had been reduced in (the tax collection office)," said Erdmann. "There weren't the people to properly follow up on parking tickets."
At times, Chief Auditor Campbell, hired in 1995, has found himself in the role of Hartford's Sisyphus, returning again and again to problems that have not been addressed despite his pointing them out repeatedly.
In the case of the unpaid parking ticket fines and penalties, for example, what was 160,000 tickets totaling approximately $6.2 million in 2002 had grown to 192,206 tickets totaling more than $11.4 million by the time of a follow-up review in 2003.
From there it was on to the quarter-million tickets and $15.4 million in uncollected debt that showed up in the 2005 report.
Another example of the rock continuing to roll back down the hill comes from an audit of the Hartford Police Department's Private Jobs Office, which supplies officers to monitor road repairs and other work sites, for a fee.
In a December 2004 report updating a prior report dated December 2001, auditors noted that accounts receivables for Private Jobs was $1.9 million, with about $1.4 million more than 60 days old. In addition, auditors found that customers with outstanding bills for private jobs were still receiving services, usually after simply making a phone call, with no signed contracts in place.
"In general we found that HPD management has not taken action to address a majority of the exceptions and/or recommendations in our report dated December 2001," stated the 2004 report.
"The same issues were coming up again and again," Campbell said last week.
That has all changed now, according to Erdmann, who cites the city's internal audit work plan, instituted about two years ago, which calls on department heads to implement recommendations made concerning their departments. They have to specify who will be responsible for making the changes, and how long they'll have to do it. Every quarter, the city issues a status report.
"From my reading of the reports that come through, there's very few recommendations (Chief Auditor Campbell) identifies that are not agreed to by the appropriate department head," said Erdmann.
The latest status report dated July 13, for example, shows Hartford Police hard at work to straighten out the Private Jobs mess, completing 23 of 36 "deliverables," as changes the department needs to make are identified in classic bureaucratese.
The free ride for delinquent customers who want more private police work has been shut down, with controls in place to make sure they don't pile up additional charges until they've paid the ones they already owe.
The police department is now also sending bills out on time, and referring all balances greater than 60 days old to a collection agency.
But Juliann Butler, revenue manager for the city's Finance Department, said there's still an outstanding balance of $1.9 million for police private jobs. At least it's not the same $1.9 million as in 2004.
"It's a moving target," said Butler. "We get money in and there's outstanding bills."
Erdmann remains hopeful that other reforms are in the works.
"As an organization we are taking the internal audit office's reports and their recommendations very seriously," said Erdmann. "Our intent is to implement all of them."