Friday, May 22, 2015

To Pay the Piper Again and Again and Again

I recently wrote about reaching another birthday.  I used the occasion to look into the future of this blog.  But there was another story I could have written about my birthday week.

In the days before my birthday, I had to wait through the line at the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew my license.  The task was the result of a pair of clerical errors at DMV, but it wasn’t the mind-numbing, day-wasting experience that I had feared.  I arrived early, the line moved at a moderate pace once the doors were unlocked, and I was done in less than two hours after I arrived.

But as I waited in line, I had a niggling worry.  I feared that the DMV would deny my renewal because of an unpaid bridge toll.  It was only when I was out the door with paperwork in hand that I truly breathed easily. 

I’ll give a short version of the unpaid toll and ask you to trust me that I’ll connect back to urbanism before I finish.

In early 2010, I received a note from a collection agency in Wisconsin demanding $60 from me, $6 for a toll I hadn’t paid on the Golden Gate Bridge and $54 in assorted fees and penalties because I hadn’t paid the toll earlier.

But there were several problems with the information they provided.  To begin, this was the first I’d heard of the unpaid toll.  There had been no earlier notices.  Next, my middle initial was wrong.  Also, the vehicle noted was a silver pickup.  I’ve never owned a silver pickup, nor even driven one in my recollection.  But most interestingly, on the day the toll went unpaid, I was in London.  At about the time the silver pickup was crossing the Golden Gate, toll unpaid, I was taking a photo of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.  (Hence the photo.)

I thought my case was ironclad.  I called the collection agency, left a voicemail message listing the facts, and assumed I was absolved.

I was wrong.

Six months later, I got another collection notice with all the same facts, except that fees had continued to grow.  I promptly called again.  This time, I speak with a real person, a very persistent real person.  He has a lot of supposed facts about this Dave Alden who owed them money, multiple home addresses, the names of family members, and information on various vehicles.  Some of the data was truly mine.  Addresses where I lived 20 years ago and even the name of an ex-wife.  He had conflated two Dave Aldens.

I patiently helped him separate his facts into two separate piles, one for me and one for the other Dave Alden, all the time reiterating that it hadn’t been me in the silver pickup.  By the time we finished, he seemed convinced.  I again assumed I was absolved.

Again I was wrong.

Six months later, I received yet another collection notice with even more fees attached.  I made another call to Wisconsin to review the same facts.  This time, the call was escalated to a manager.  At the conclusion of the conversation, I was assured that my name had been removed from the record.

By now, I wasn’t sure if I could believe them.  No other collection notices were received, but I still had trepidation while I waited in the DMV line.

And, very honestly, if the DMV had told me that I needed to pay $200 to clear the matter, I probably would have paid it.  Even though completely in the right, I had familial obligations and couldn’t sit home for a couple of weeks arguing with Wisconsin until my license could be restored.  Luckily, it didn’t come to that.

I’d like to think that I had been unlucky in being wrongly connected to a traffic infraction and in having an increasing mountain of fees attached to the paltry initial sum.  But I would have been only half right.  The incorrect assignment of blame had been unlucky, but the mountain of fees is how the system works these days.

Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns tells a similar story of being dunned for $600 in tolls and fees by the State of Florida.  The facts in his case were different, and he lacked a photo of the Elgin Marbles to support his innocence, so he eventually and begrudgingly paid the tab.

The same concern exists here in the North Bay.  In recent weeks, the Press Democrat has reported on the high fees associated with unpaid tickets and on what advocates for the low-income are saying about the fees, which fall disproportionately, indeed almost exclusively, on the low-income.  The Press Democrat editorial board then weighed with support for fee relief.

(For those with 17 minutes to spare and a tolerance for casual profanity, the StrongTowns link includes an embedded John Oliver video that covers much the same ground, with a soupcon of irreverent and entertaining sarcasm.)

Before moving on, it’s important to note that no one is calling for fines to be eliminated.  If we want to encourage safe roads, it’s essential for fines to be assessed for transgressions such as speeding, rolling through stop signs, and texting while driving.  Similarly, tolls are a small way of putting the costs of infrastructure on those who are use the infrastructure, which is a reasonable goal.  The commentators aren’t arguing that point.  They’re only arguing that imposing extortionate fees on those who struggle to pay the fines and tolls is unreasonable and unjust.

Now, I need to lasso this conversation back around to the subject of urbanism.  The fees that are the source of such rancor are the result of cities and counties struggling to balance their books.  And the books are difficult to balance in large part because we’ve built a world that costs a lot to maintain.   Streetsblog recently provided a summary of the costs of servicing walkable urban versus drivable suburban development.

Compounding the problems, taxpayers choose to disown the costs of the flawed land-use pattern, using self-serving logic to blame government rather the land-use pattern.

So, to retrace the arc from the beginning, we adopted a post-World War II land-use pattern that we eventually couldn’t afford, we then renounced the costs of our poor choice, we then begin to set ever higher fines in an attempt to balance the books, and finally we imposed fees on those who can’t pay the fines, eventually resulting in some being carted off to the modern-equivalent of debtors’ prison.  Sometimes I’m embarrassed for us.

To be fair, there are some non-land-use issues that figure into this story, including a difficult adjustment to a global economy and an unwillingness to address income inequality, but they’re beyond the scope of this blog and, regardless, land-use still has a key role.

Looking at the big picture, ninety minutes of standing in a line at DMV worrying about a possible $200 cost, no matter how unfair, doesn’t seem like much of a cost to pay.  Others have it far worse off.  And our goal should be to address that burden

For my next post, I hope to finally have news to announce on the Fairgrounds effort.  (The on-going delays are frustrating to me also.)  But failing that, I’ll begin writing about a recent development on the SMART commuter train coming to Petaluma.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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