Wednesday, September 01, 2004

City's Traffic Ticket Racket Pulling In Less Dough

Aug. 24, 01:01 EDT
City coffers in fine mess as drivers fight insurance hikes
Eric McGuinness and Allan Pulga
The Hamilton Spectator

City income from traffic fines and other provincial offences is running $100,000 a month below expectations, even though Hamilton police are issuing more tickets.

Officials blame a shortage of justices of the peace to hold trials, more people fighting tickets, sentences being suspended, fines being reduced and people failing to pay.

Joe Rinaldo, general manager of finance and corporate services, reports revenue for the first five months of this year fell $470,000 short of the budget projection. And that budget projection is lower than last year's because 2003 fine collections fell $1.5 million short of forecasts.

The city was counting on the provincial offences court to generate income -- after expenses -- of almost $4.5 million this year, money that would otherwise have to come from property taxes.

Kevin Christenson, the city clerk responsible for Hamilton's provincial offences administration office, said due to the number of offences, there will always be a backlog of trials.

But he said a shortage of justices of the peace isn't the big problem. The "big one" is people failing to pay, he said, which keeps the court's collection department busy.

In his budget variance report to council for the period Jan. 1 to May 31, Rinaldo said the city is stepping up efforts to collect unpaid fines in hopes of improving year-end results.

Alison Melo, a consultant at Highway Traffic Agents in Burlington, an agency run by two ex-police officers that defends motorists on traffic charges, said more Hamiltonians are challenging their tickets in court because of high auto insurance rates.

"Insurance rates are going up for no reason at all, so the last thing you want to do is give your insurance company additional reasons to up your rates," she said.

That leads to an even greater backlog of trials, not to mention reduced fines or even dismissed charges.

She also said city income isn't being lost because of court leniency.

"Hamilton is apparently the toughest court in the province. They don't reduce much, they don't give many breaks, and the (police) officers are generally always (present) in court."

But revenue from the court has come up short of targets ever since the city took over administration from the province in February 2000.

And earlier this year, Hamilton wrote off as uncollectible $10 million of $24 million in unpaid fines handed over by the province. The writeoffs were for pre-1997 fines.

The city's corporate services department rents courtrooms and office space in the provincial John Sopinka Courthouse on Main Street East, but cases are heard by justices of the peace assigned by the Ministry of the Attorney General and the judiciary.

There are currently 301 justices of the peace serving Ontario.

In a report submitted during budget discussions last spring, Rinaldo told council police had issued 13,000 more traffic tickets for moving offences in 2003 than in 2002, but revenue was still short.

There were also 3,250 extra charges laid by bylaw officers, environment ministry inspectors and other enforcement officials. And Hamilton police spokesperson Carol Pacey said this year police had issued more than 28,000 tickets by the end of July, on pace to match or surpass the 2003 ticket count.

The 2003 budget projected 10,000 more traffic tickets at an average fine of $100, but Rinaldo said that didn't take into account dismissed charges, reduced fines, suspended sentences and extensions of time to pay.