“I think the city is talking out of both sides of its mouth. The city wants to use the defense they won't allow citizens to use.”
Explanation for toll-road fines is the same one Houston rejects when motorists contest red-light violations
By JAMES PINKERTON
The city has avoided paying county toll road fines using a defense it does not want motorists to use when contesting red-light camera violations.
Earlier this week, city officials again asked Harris County Commissioners Court to help them collect millions by blocking the registration of vehicles involved in red-light camera violations in which the fines have not been paid. Meanwhile, Harris County Toll Road Authority lawyers were continuing a fruitless effort to make the city pay tolls racked up by more than a hundred non-emergency city vehicles.
A city finance official claimed the toll fines are owed by the individual employees rather than the city, which owns the vehicles.
But the city's efforts to block registrations are aimed at the owners of vehicles involved in red-light camera violations.
“I think the city is talking out of both sides of its mouth. The city wants to use the defense they won't allow citizens to use,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said.
“They need to be better neighbors,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, adding that the only exemptions from the toll fees are for firetrucks, ambulances, law enforcement and military vehicles. “The city of Houston should make good on this and find a way to pay these dollars that are owed on any of their vehicles.”
A resolution appeared to be in the works Thursday, although how much is owed may be in dispute.
Frank Michel, a spokesman for Mayor Bill White, said the city will pay the toll road authority fines and is taking action to improve its internal monitoring of citations issued to non-emergency vehicles.
“It is our position the city is responsible to make sure these fines are taken care of,“ Michel said. “Our internal policy is to hold the driver responsible or accountable, and we haven't done a good job of doing that and we're going to work on it.”
He added: “Whatever is owed outstanding, we are working with the county to get it resolved .”
How much is owed?
Toll Road Authority spokesman Eric Hanson said there are 552 violations involving unpaid tolls for 122 different vehicles owned by the city. To date, the city owes $13,851 in unpaid tolls, fines and collection fees, he said.
Michel said the city's tally showed 81 vehicles totaling about $1,000 in tolls, along with fines and penalties of about $11,000.
Last Friday, four days before city officials went to Commissioners Court seeking approval of a contract to block the registration of vehicles of red-light camera scofflaws, a city finance employee sent an e-mail to the county attorney's office.
“Harris Co. have (sic) been sending individual tickets without pictures (no proof) and expecting someone to pay,” finance department employee Al Owens wrote. “That someone would be the driver and not the City of Houston. The City of Houston is not responsible for tickets incurred by employees with city vehicles.”
He also wrote that it would be impossible to determine who was driving the city vehicles at the time of violations.
The e-mail was in response to a demand earlier that day by Assistant County Attorney Clarissa Bauer, who informed Owens the Texas Transportation Code requires the Toll Road Authority to send the delinquent notice to the registered owner of the vehicle, not the driver.
“HCTRA has hundreds of photographs of City vehicles using the Toll Road system without paying,“ Bauer wrote, adding, “For years, HCTRA has been sending violations notices to the City of Houston but the City has failed to pay.“ Bauer said some fines have been sent to a law firm for collection.
© 2009 Houston Chronicle: www.chron.com
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