WASHINGTON — As the District of Columbia faces a new budget cycle this year, it will have to fill a big hole each year from people who don’t pay their tickets.
In fiscal year 2014, D.C. lost more than $55 million in unpaid tickets, according to numbers obtained by AAA Mid-Atlantic. More specifically, the city was unable to collect on 382,111 delinquent tickets worth $55,313,586.
That number might seem shocking, but the numbers from previous years were much worse.
In 2013, D.C. wrote 2.5 million tickets, including parking, moving, photo enforcement and taxicab violations. Of them, 574,000 went unpaid, costing the city $72.4 million. In 2012, the number was $101.9 million. Since fiscal 2011, the District has lost $322 million in unpaid fines.
“That’s a lot of money, I concede,” says Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the Transportation and the Environment Committee. “Yeah, it’s a lot of money.”
“I don’t know why we’re losing that much money,”she adds, “despite the fact that we have this unit aimed at collecting from people who owe us money. We have to figure that out.”
Each year, about a quarter of all tickets go unpaid.
“These numbers are staggering, and it has a tremendous impact on the city’s budget and leads to shortfalls,” says John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s manager of public and government affairs.
D.C. isn’t powerless to collect the money; the unit aimed at collecting unpaid ticket debts can take several actions. For D.C. residents, it can place a lien against you, suspend your license or registration or take the debt out of your tax refund.
For Maryland and Virginia residents, the unit can report your debt to the credit bureaus and lower your credit score. The city can also boot your car — or, in case of an unpaid moving violation, arrest you.
“You look at the tickets and find that almost 80 percent of them live outside the District of Columbia,” Townsend says. “But it’s also surprising that 20 percent actually live within the city itself.”
Figures show that Maryland residents are much more delinquent than their Virginia counterparts. Each year, Marylanders owe about twice as much as Virginians in unpaid tickets: In 2013, Marylanders owed $28.9 million; Virginians, $14.3 million.
Townsend believes that’s because Virginians have to cross a bridge to get into the District, whereas Maryland residents do not, so photo enforcement cameras are more likely to catch them entering the city.
“These numbers make sense because in any given year, Marylanders account for about 40 to 45 percent of all tickets written in the city,” Townsend says. “And overall, we know about three-quarters of parking tickets are written to people from Maryland and Virginia.”
Whether these people are scofflaws, deadbeats, indigent, or protesting the ticketing and adjudication system with their wallets is unclear.
“Hundreds of thousands come into the District. Sometimes they leave with a ticket and think, ‘That’s D.C. and I’m not going to pay it,'” says Cheh. “We need to find out why we’re not doing a better job. But at least we’re moving into the right direction. People should understand that it matters if you don’t pay your tickets.”
Regardless of the cause, it’s clear that the city depends on ticket revenue, particularly parking citations, to balance the budget.