Pay parking tickets to get towed car back: Enforcement starts for 2-year-old Bloomington law

If you have six or more unpaid parking tickets in Bloomington, the city can have your car towed away.

It used to be that just four unpaid tickets could get your car towed. But two years ago, in May 2021, Bloomington’s city council approved the administration’s request to bump the number to six.

Enforcement of the six-ticket law will start this year, on June 12, according to a news release from the mayor’s office in the last week of May. Cars that are facing an imminent tow will have green warning stickers placed on them, according to the administration.

In strictly numerical terms, the 2021 code revision was a softening of the law—because the change made it possible to accrue two additional unpaid tickets before facing a risk of towing.

But with the city council’s 2021 ordinance change came a stiffening of the penalty—the unpaid tickets that triggered the towing now have to be paid in order for an owner to get their car back.

How much could someone have to pay to get their car back, if they receive their sixth ticket and their car eventually gets towed? The fine for one expired meter ticket is $30, but escalates to $60 after two weeks. That would make $360 for the six parking fines.

But the city code counts three unpaid tickets as a separate violation, subject to a $50 fine. So six unpaid tickets can translate into another $100.

A towing company can charge $135, plus $25 for special treatments like dollying, and another $25 per day as a storage fee. That adds up to $185 that a parking violator would owe to the towing company to get their car back. In August of 2022, the city council added a $25 administrative fee to be charged for towed cars.

That means someone with six unpaid tickets, who gets their car towed and stored for a day, could be looking at a payment of $670 to get their car back.

Bloomington’s local code does have a section that says a towed car has to be released to its owner, if at least 20 percent of “the fees” are paid and a payment agreement is made for the rest.

It’s not clear if the administration is analyzing the 20-percent clause to include the parking fines as well as the towing fees. [Added June 3, 2023 at 9:05 a.m. Parking services director Michelle Wahl responded to a B Square question on this point by indicating that the parking fines are not including in the wording in local code about paying 20 percent of towing fees.  The parking fines have to be paid in full in order for the owner to get their car back. Wahl put it like this: “All outstanding citations must be paid for the vehicle to be released.”]

When the city council deliberated on the 2021 ordinance change, one focus was the impact of a tow on someone whose livelihood depends on their car, but who cannot afford the fines or the fees to get it back.

That scenario reminded her of debtors prisons, councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith said at the time.

Parking services director Michelle Wahl responded to the concern by pointing to a possibility that parking enforcement officers could delay turning an account over to the city’s collections agency to allow for a payment plan to be adopted, before the person’s car gets towed.

A second option described by Wahl, after the car is towed, would include committing to a payment plan with the city’s collections agency, which is Capital Recovery Systems.

At the time, councilmember Matt Flaherty said he was somewhat uncomfortable with allowing the handling of individual cases to depend on the administration’s discretion, but allowed it could be awkward to codify the accommodations that need to be made.

This week, Wahl responded to questions from The B Square with a point of emphasis in each answer—that no car will be towed without first putting a green warning sticker on the vehicle: “They will always be warned first by a green sticker that states, ‘Immediate Action is Required’ which outlines the steps that can be taken to not get towed and if they haven’t taken the appropriate step(s) they will be towed.”

According to Wahl, for tickets issued from April 2019 through April 2023 there are 153 people with six or more unpaid parking tickets. The grand total of parking tickets for those people is 2,508 for an average of 16 unpaid tickets apiece. The total outstanding balance on those tickets is $156,497.

The city of Bloomington’s parking enforcement division is now fully staffed for the first time in a long time, which means that the number of tickets issued since the start of 2023 has increased compared to previous years.

From January through April of 2023, an average of 5,044 were written per month. That’s the biggest number of tickets written for that same four-month period dating back to the time when the city clerk’s office has records. The next highest number for that four-month span came in 2014, when an average of 4,800 tickets were written each month.

4 thoughts on “Pay parking tickets to get towed car back: Enforcement starts for 2-year-old Bloomington law

  1. back in january 2019, there was a car abandoned in the bike lane on college ave. after it was there for about a week, i ureported it, and i saw that several others had already ureported it. after it was there for another 10 days, i called Mr. Wason (director of public works) and asked him to tow the car since it was blocking the bike lane. and he literally laughed at me. he thought it was hillarious that someone would consider a bike lane more important than free parking for an abandoned car. he also told me it had only been there for a few days, but i looked through the ureports and it had been reported more than 10 days previously. he has a long tradition of gaslighting “we would never let it get this bad” — he might fool city councilmembers but he’s not fooling cyclists or pedestrians!

    what was happening was someone was blocking the right of way. go stand in traffic as a pedestrian and you’ll find out real quick, it’s a criminal offense and they’ll come down on you real hard after only 5 minutes. their understaffed department will make it a priority and send 3 cops with 3 cars and 3 guns and they’ll handcuff you and threaten you and threaten your kids. ask me how i know. but if you block bike traffic for 3 weeks with a jeep, Mr. Wason will laugh in your face at the suggestion that his department has any responsibility to maintain the public right of way. since all that’s being blocked is a bike lane, he decided it was more like illegal parking and less like blocking the right of way.

    anyways, if you call BPD and tell them about a vehicle abandoned in the car lane, they’ll tow it the same hour. but if you call BPD and tell them about a vehicle in the bike lane they’ll ignore you (they have the decorum not to laugh in your face, at least). *but* if you call the mayor’s office after 3 weeks and the mayor’s office calls BPD then the car will be towed same day. and that’s the story of how it took 3 weeks to clear an abandoned car from a bike lane on a busy street on our city’s high injury network.

    i’m cautiously optimistic things are slowly changing. but there is a real problem. repeated criminal behavior by drivers causes problems for pedestrians and cyclists. there are victims of our administrations discretionary decision to not enforce a whole slew of laws that have been on the books for decades. poor people who rely on their cars are one concern but the real poor people don’t have cars. and the administration still treats them like dirt.

  2. The outstanding balance on unpaid tickets is $156,497. That is a substantial amount of money! It does make me curious to know how the city spends the parking money it collects. When the parking meters were first installed, I believe those funds were said to be used exclusively for parking garage/meter maintenance expenses, plus downtown sidewalk and road improvements. Can anyone point to the webpage or online document where the current information about how downtown parking revenue is spent is made available to the public?

    1. i hope Mr Askins comes out with an article answering your question — he’s just the guy to get to the bottom of it! but i’ve never been able to get a solid answer, and i’ve tried. i might be going too far but i think the mayor is intentionally obstructing attempts by bodies like the city council to audit parking finances because he has been using subsidized parking garages as a perq for campaign donors. you heard it here first, the 4th street garage expansion is a way for the mayor to give ‘pro quo’ to Cook/CFC.

      anyways as near as i’ve been able to tell, parking revenue never goes further than parking department. it’s spent on the garages (which have huge annual maintenance bills, and debt payments too) and the parking enforcement officers and maintaining the meters and so on. but i have heard councilmember Volan say (at last week’s parking commission meeting) that it’s expected in a year or two to finally generate a surplus that might be spent on some of the downtown enhancements that we were promised. not sure where he got that idea from but i’m optimistic because he is definitely someone who has tried to get to the bottom of that question.

  3. I am curious how many of those tickets were appealed and denied? And since unpaid tickets are sent to a collection agency, does that mean the collection agency has been unsuccessful collecting outstanding fines?

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