Don't Blame Berkeley for Higher Ticket Prices 

As cities across the state consider increasing parking ticket prices, the culprit was in Sacramento.

Cities and counties across the state of California are raising the price of a parking ticket to help fill major holes in their budgets, and they're laying the blame at the feet of the state legislature.

In the City of Berkeley, a parking ticket will cost $5 more starting in May, and Oakland is moving forward with a $10 increase. Other cities also are scrambling to make back money they recently discovered was being taken away from them by the state.

Senate Bill 1407, sponsored by Don Perata and passed last fall, increased the state's share of every parking ticket from $1.50 to $4.50 to fund the construction and maintenance of court facilities. According to proponents of the bill, the state's courthouses are in serious disrepair and pose a threat to the health and safety of everyone who uses them.

"It's really unfortunate that the state, in the middle of the night, goes in and basically just rips off $4.50 from every parking ticket in the State of California," said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates prior to the council vote to raise parking ticket rates in the city. "It's pretty unconscionable. They don't want to raise the taxes; they don't even want to raise fees. So what they do is a backdoor take-the-money-and-run."

Officials in Berkeley were upset for another reason. Not only were they forced to make back the $1.35 million that SB 1407 will suck out of the general fund every year, but they had to do it in a hurry.

According to Tracey Vesley, Berkeley's budget manager, the city was taken by surprise when it discovered that this money was owed to the state. Vesley says that the city was not informed of the passage of the bill through the usual channels. Instead, she learned about it days after it took effect in January, from a simple question posed on a government finance officers listserv by a curious city staffer in Watsonville.

"It raised my eyebrows," Vesley said. "I did a little research, and lo and behold we discovered that there was indeed legislation ... that we did not know about."

To add insult to injury, Vesley also discovered that the state had already passed a similar bill in 2003, which the city was also unaware of, calling for $1.50 of every parking ticket be remanded to the state (also for court construction and maintenance). SB 1407 added three more dollars to the existing $1.50, bringing the total to $4.50.

City staffers from around the state confirm that Berkeley was not alone. There was little to no knowledge of the money owed to the State Court Facilities Construction Fund for the past six years. No one seems to have been paying the original share of tickets up the chain, and apparently no one at the state level had ever asked for the money. Whether or not state officials will try and collect the funds owed remains unclear.

Marc Pimentel, finance director for the City of Watsonville, was the individual who posted the question that got Tracey Vesley's attention in Berkeley. When Pimentel was first tipped off about the passage of SB 1407 about four months ago, he started calling around to other cities in the Monterey Bay area. "Essentially, everyone we kept contacting didn't know about it," Pimentel said. "They were shocked that it had already gone into effect." It seems there was a lag of about three months between the passing of SB 1407 and its taking effect at the start of 2009, when cities were in the dark.

"We followed up with a survey of finance offices around the state and had very similar results," Pimentel said. "I think there was one agency somewhere that knew about it and had implemented rates ahead of time. But that was one, versus forty-some-odd responses of people saying, 'What is it?' 'Never heard about it.' 'When does it start?'"

Berkeley staffers also conducted a survey of Bay Area cities to find out if anyone was aware of the new rule. Of the eight other cities contacted, none had known about the issue for very long, and staff in both Walnut Creek and Fremont got word of the extra money now due to the state for the first time when Berkeley officials called them up.

Just last week in Oakland, the City Council's finance committee unanimously approved a recommendation to raise parking ticket rates by $10 to recapture the missing revenue.

Councilmember Pat Kernighan struck a populist note despite voting for the increase, pointing out that a ticket for parking overtime in a two-hour zone was now "really high" at $50. "These are really big fines and they often end up being paid by the people who have the least money," Kernighan said. The Oakland City Council plans to revisit parking ticket rates as part of the budget process, where some of the more common fines could be scaled back in exchange for increasing others, such as parking violations for large trucks.

Citizens who find themselves on the wrong side of an Oakland meter maid will soon see an additional "surcharge" of $10 added to their fine. According to a staff report, half of the increase will go toward paying the new money owed to the State of California since the passage of SB 1407 and the other half will make up for $5 per ticket that the city has already been paying to Alameda County since 1994 in unrelated, state-mandated surcharges (also for court construction.) Apparently, Oakland can no longer afford to absorb those "pass-throughs," estimated to be $3.4 million a year.

Something similar is occurring in every city and county in California. From San Mateo to Los Angeles, officials are deciding that in these difficult times, they can't afford not to raise parking ticket rates to make up for the increased share now owed to the state.

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