Thursday, May 1, 2008

New tool will put scofflaws in a pinch

By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff
— Parking ticket pack rats beware: After a two-week towing hiatus, the city Wednesday revealed VioAlert Systems’ Wheel Immobilizer, the latest tool in the city’s ticket enforcement arsenal.
Starting May 6, VioAlert’s infrared cameras will scan streets for cars owing more than $200 in parking tickets.
When a match is made and a driver double-checks whether there have been any last-minute payments, VioAlert’s red-and-black, rubber-coated metal horseshoe will be clamped onto a car’s front wheel, immobilizing the car. A chain wraps around the A-frame of the car, in case someone were to try to remove a wheel and drive off.
According to VioAlert CEO Karl Faerber, his staff of 18 will hunt for cars 18 hours a day and will be on call to free cars at all times.
It will cost $105 plus any unpaid parking tickets to retrieve a car from VioAlert’s grips, with $55 of that going to VioAlert. By comparison, it costs $127 to retrieve a towed car.
Vin DiLauro, spokesman for the municipal tow companies, said it “looks like a system that will work,” but questioned whether VioAlert was the right firm for the job.
“The original ordinance says the tow companies would purchase and install boots,” he said, pointing to a city ordinance that says the city must pay boot fees “to the tower upon presentation of invoices.”
“Today, we are faced with a change,” DiLauro said. He claimed his company, Columbus Towing, spent $8,400 purchasing boots believing they would be awarded the job.
“The word ‘tower’ can be interpreted just as the word ‘booter.’ ... Working with VioAlert does comply,” said city spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga. “They are the tower or the booter, it’s the same thing.”
City Controller Mark Pietrosimone said a public request for proposals was advertised several months ago. “One part was for parking tag scofflaws, another part was for street sweeping,” he said.
Columbus bid to use boots for street sweeping towing, but did not bid for the parking tag program, he said.
No company was selected for street sweeping, and it is expected the RFP will be advertised again after the city better determines what direction it will take with the program.
The Plate Hunter program was suspended early this month after state marshals, tax collector C.J. Cuticello and the Rev. Boise Kimber were allegedly involved in calling off tows for politically connected scofflaws.
City Hall launched a review of towing procedures and probed the program for additionally impropriety.
Director of Transportation, Traffic and Parking Mike Piscatelli said Wednesday no additional incidents were revealed, and Plate Hunter, tow companies and state marshals will be back on the road within days once marshals and towers are retrained.
“We’re treating them on a clean slate,” he said.
State marshals and tow operators must review recently revamped towing policies and train with staff from Community Mediation on how to de-escalate conflict.
Training is slated to occur today.
Plate Hunter will not join VioAlert vans, as both systems use similar technology, but Plate Hunter will remain in use for tax collection enforcement. The city also established a new grievance procedure for those seeking to appeal a tow.t.

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