$2 Billion Owed to City in Unpaid Fines As Mayor Adams Asks for Budget Cuts

This article was originally published by THE CITY on April 5, 2023.

| 06 Apr 2023 | 01:37

As City Hall looks to cut back on spending, scofflaws owe more than $2 billion in fines incurred over the last five years, the city’s Independent Budget Office (IBO) found in an analysis released Wednesday at the behest of Councilmember Gale Brewer.

Unpaid parking and camera-enforcement tickets alone totaled more than $1 billion, in addition to penalties for building and fire code violations, sanitation tickets and other penalties imposed through the city Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, and $150 million in uncollected property taxes and emergency housing repair bills.

Department of Buildings violations accounted for the biggest share of unpaid penalties after the traffic fines, at $627 million.

The city could be owed more money, given that the IBO’s calculations do not include debt stemming from sales, income and business taxes nor unpaid sewer and water charges, the IBO noted.

“I know people say ‘how come others don’t pay their bills? I pay my bills and it doesn’t seem fair,’” Brewer said. “You see this big number here, $2.1 billion, and I never know how much the city really goes after trying to get these people to pay their bills—or not.”

Brewer, who asked the IBO for a similar report over a decade ago during her prior tenure on the City Council, said that in light of this report, she’s curious about how much this has to do with the city’s well-documented staffing shortages and the city’s debt collectors.

The city has paused its tax lien sales program amid controversy, removing an enforcement tool that had been used to jolt property debtors to pay up.

Mayor Eric Adams has called for the majority of city agencies to slash their budgets by 4% as part of the mayor’s 2024 executive budget proposal, the Daily News reported. Jacques Jiha, Adams’ budget director, said in a letter to agency leaders that the need to trim the budget is the result of the cost to address the migrant crisis, which could grow to $4.3 billion by July of next year.

“The collection of fines from parking ticket and camera violations was adversely impacted by the pandemic due to lower issuance and suspension of penalty assessments, filing of judgments, and booting operations during this time,” Mayor Adams spokesperson Jonah Allon said.

“Since the city resumed enforcement operations in the Spring of 2022, the amount of money collected in fines has risen sharply.”

Growing Problem

The report states that while the total amount of fines issued in parking and camera-generated violations has mostly increased from year to year — from $795 million in 2017 to $1.28 billion in 2022 as the number of enforcement cameras grew — the percentage of unpaid fines has nearly tripled from 10% in 2017 to 29% in 2022.

The IBO also qualified its report saying that it’s likely that “the city will collect more of these funds over time as additional payments are made” to recent violations.

The IBO and Brewer aren’t the first to highlight collections challenges.

An audit released March 2021 by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli office determined that the Department of Finance “did not maximize collection of fines and fees owed for parking violations.” The audit was based on more than 260,000 cases with an outstanding balance of over $108 million from a seven-year period stretching from January 2012 to February 2019.

The audit found that summonses for parking violations often fall outside of the statute of limitations, cases assigned to outside collection agencies were often deemed uncollectable. In a sample of 153 cases handled by the department’s in-house collection team, the department took action to collect unpaid fines in only 35 cases.

Bernard O’Brien, one of the authors of the report, said to THE CITY that it’s unclear if the city could successfully invest more resources to collect this money.

“There’s never been a day when there hasn’t been a lot of money owed to New York City for fines and things like that,” he said. “One of the questions now is could the city be doing more to collect this money.”

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“You see this big number here, $2.1 billion, and I never know how much the city really goes after trying to get these people to pay their bills—or not.” City Councilmember Gale Brewer