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Boot and tow program coming for Suffolk ticket scofflaws

The county is targeting tens of thousands of scofflaws with unpaid tickets for red light camera and other moving and parking violations.

Paul Margiotta, executive director of the Suffolk Traffic

Paul Margiotta, executive director of the Suffolk Traffic and Parking Violation Agency, stacks years of parking tickets overflowing from filing cabinets on Thursday. Photo Credit: Raychel Brightman

Suffolk County is gearing up to boot and tow as many as 43,000 scofflaw vehicles with three or more unresolved red light camera violations, and another 40,000 with county judgments for moving or parking violations.

County traffic officials say anyone who has not taken advantage of the amnesty program that waives late fees on $45 million in unpaid fines until Feb. 20, could face booting or towing starting next month.

“As of March 1, every vehicle [owner] who owes a large amount of money will be subject to boot and tow,” said Paul Margiotta, executive director of the Suffolk Traffic and Parking Violations Agency.

Margiotta said he could not detail how soon the crackdown will start, or how much scofflaws must owe to be targeted. Before enforcement can begin, a county committee must review proposals from outside contractors and make a selection and county attorneys must issue a contract.

Despite the uncertain start date, County Executive Steve Bellone’s budget anticipates $2 million in revenues this year from the boot and tow effort.

Nassau County, which has had a similar program since 2012, had brought in total revenues of $27.7 million and booted 14,408 vehicles as of Jan. 1, a county spokeswoman said.

Bellone, a Democrat, submitted a 2019 budget that projected Suffolk will get $26.16 million in red light camera fines, even though the county traffic agency forecast the total would drop to $22.72 million this year.

Similarly, revenue from traffic ticket violations and administrative fees, budgeted to bring in $28.25 million last year, are projected in the new budget to end 2018 with $23.9 million in revenue.

Bellone’s new budget says traffic fines and fees will generate $24.7 million for 2019, though the agency forecast only $23.9 million.  

Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy, a Republican who is weighing a run against Bellone this year, said his office began an audit of the traffic agency in August. Kennedy expressed concern about its fiscal operations.

“People who violate the law are supposed to make good,” said Kennedy. “But before embracing any kind of new enforcement, we need to see the revenues running through the place and what the operating costs are.”

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), minority leader, said, "it all comes down to what criteria is used to determine who is a scofflaw . . . and that critical information has not come to us.”

But “for those who are repeated violators flaunting the law by not paying tickets, it’s totally reasonable,” Cilmi said of the boot and tow program. 

Margiotta said decisions about whom to boot or tow will be made by the agency, along with the contractor chosen to run the system.

In all, Suffolk has a total of 548,888 in unpaid tickets, 437,615 of them stemming from red light camera, parking and traffic offenses.

County officials say at least one scofflaw owes more than $20,000 in red light camera fines.

The traffic agency, formed in 2013, has  not gone after scofflaws until now. In 2014, the county legislature authorized fees of $250 for booting, $350 for towing and $75 a day for storage, but the county never implemented a program.

Margiotta first talked aggressively about going after scofflaws with booting and towing in 2016, in advance of an amnesty effort aimed at motorists with $22 million in unpaid fines and fees. He did not follow through.

Margiotta said he could not detail how much the amnesty program has brought in to date.

In a request for proposals for a contractor to run the boot and tow program, Suffolk is seeking a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week service and a 10-day supply of boots that owners can self-release once the fine is paid.

The county also says the contractor must maintain “a satisfactory production level of boot and tow operations” so that vehicles deemed scofflaws “do not get backlogged.”

The contractor also must provide mailed notice to owners within two days after towing, and provide photos of towed vehicles and computerized record links to the traffic violation bureau and the Suffolk Police Department.

The bid solicitation also says there should be “no upfront costs” to the county.

The RFP asks bidders to identify the number of staff Suffolk will need to supply, as well as other “potential burdens” the county may face in supporting day-to-day operations.

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