Friday, February 15, 2008

Plate hunter on the prowl

By William Kaempffer
Register Staff

NEW HAVEN — Move over Bootfinder. It is the Plate Hunter’s time.
That’s the moniker of the city’s latest $78,000 jaunt into high-tech doohickeys, this one powered by Italian-made optical character recognition technology, with a singular goal of making tax and tag collection from car owners better, stronger and faster than it was before.
“Technology changes very quickly and we need to keep up with the technology,” said Tax Collector C.J. Cuticello as he unveiled the new “Plate Hunter” devices Thursday in front of City Hall.
Witty name aside, make no mistake about the city’s ambition: To locate tax (and parking ticket) scofflaws, impound their cars and make them pay up to get them back.
The city retired the old Bootfinder infrared license plate scanner, which was introduced with fanfare in 2004 and, according to city officials, generated millions of dollars in revenue.
The Plate Hunter comes with more bells and whistles, such as mapping capabilities and the capacity to enter registration information from abducted children, Amber Alerts or Homeland Security bulletins, although it’s unlikely that type of information would filter to the tax office. But the biggest difference is speed, with each camera able to read more than 1,000 license plates an hour, according to the manufacturer, Brewster, N.Y.-based Elsag North America.
The city will have dual tow truck-mounted cameras, which will enable drivers to scan cars on both sides of the street as they prowl the city’s 127 miles of streets.
Right now, according to the city, there are 10,026 past-due accounts from the July 1, 2007 bills and another 6,761 past due from the supplemental Jan. 1 bills, for a combined delinquency of about $3 million.
The Plate Hunter database will also include old parking tickets.
“For the people who have 15-year-old parking tickets that you think we forgot about, you better come in quickly,” said Brian McGrath, the city’s retired parking and traffic czar who still works as a consultant.
The city’s aggressive car tax collection efforts have drawn some criticism but also produced record collection rates. Part of that overall collection strategy was a semiannual media blitz, held in the winter and late summer as outstanding motor vehicle accounts turn delinquent. That’s usually followed by long lines at the tax office as residents rush in to pay up before the tow man comes calling. The actual enforcement will start Tuesday.
This is what you need to know: Vehicles with $50 or more in delinquent taxes will be towed, and the state marshal or tax collector, who accompany the wreckers, have the authority to go on private property to seize vehicles on tax warrants. There’s no towing on Sunday.
As for parking tickets, there’s a $200 threshold for a tow, unless there is an accompanying tax bill.
The tow itself is $95 and the bills must be paid in full to get the vehicle back.
New Haven officials have long defended their aggressive tactics, saying unpaid taxes ultimately cost law-abiding citizens who pay their share.
At the same time, the revenue-strapped city also is stepping up efforts to ferret out vehicles that are improperly registered out-of-state, an initiative that would hit close to home for transient Yale students, McGrath said.
According to state tax law, personal property that is located in town for more than three months is eligible to be taxed and McGrath said the city is actively seeking them out and adding them to the grand list. It’s then up to the owner to contest it at the tax appeal board or even Superior Court, McGrath said.
Cambridge, Mass., the home of Harvard, doesn’t have that problem. The entire city requires residential parking permits so students must register their vehicles to be able to park on city streets, McGrath said.
“Harvard students don’t get away with anything in Cambridge. They’re collecting millions of dollars in justifiable revenue from these students.”

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