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Texas City Goes After County for Not Paying Tickets
Travis County, Texas commissioners prohibit staff from using toll roads after county employees caught not paying toll, red light and parking tickets.

Travis County Commissioners Court, 9/30/08
For jurisdictions that treat all red light camera tickets, toll violations and parking citations as civil penalties, it does not matter who was behind the wheel when the alleged infraction occurred. Under civil procedures, the vehicle's registered owner is automatically responsible for paying once an accusation is made, regardless of individual guilt. But if the general public were to follow the example set by Travis County employees as revealed on Tuesday, fewer motorists would bother paying citations mailed by the state of Texas or the city of Austin.

"There are some employees using county vehicles on a toll road and they are not paying the tolls themselves," the county's executive manager for transportation, Joe Gieselman, said. "Therefore the toll agency sends the county the bill because they go search the license plate and sure enough Travis County is the title holder and, voila, we have the toll is not being paid. And none of these departments have budgets or authorization to pay tolls."

The problem, however, extends far beyond toll skipping. Over the past four years, county employees have been blowing through red lights and parking in handicapped zones. County law enforcement vehicles have been nabbed for parking in tow-away zones. In total, the county has racked up $10,000 in unpaid parking fines with Austin, and that city now wants its money. After the city began booting county vehicles to encourage those officials to pay up, the county commissioners court scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue.

"We have three pages of unpaid fines from the city of Austin," Alicia Perez, the county's executive manager for administration, explained. "Some are just expired meters, but others are parking in handicapped zones, parking in loading zones, clearly illegal parking going on with county vehicles."

When the county receives these tickets from cities like Austin, they are randomly forwarded to different offices within the government building, including the purchasing office and the county auditor. County commissioners complained that the citation notices contained little information that could be helpful in identifying the actual driver of the vehicle. Although most government agencies shrug when an individual vehicle owner complains after receiving a photo ticket in the mail without any way to know who may have been driving the car, Travis County claimed the process created a massive burden on the county officials who want to pass the cost of the fines and penalties to the actual driver.

"There is an administrative expense to doing this because you have to complete an affidavit for each one of these violations that occur," purchasing manager Syd Grimes complained. "-- track down who was driving, who parked the vehicle. Complete the affidavit that is submitted to either the toll authority or the city of Austin or whichever city. So there's an administrative function involved there.

To address the issue of tolls, the commissioners recommended banning any county employee from ever using a toll road on duty.

"And each should start off with basically a prohibition against using those methods [using toll roads] to perform county jobs," County Judge Samuel T. Biscoe said. "You may need to use it as an emergency matter, but the emergency vehicle is exempted. Otherwise we expect you to use free roads the same way you've used them historically... There needs to be a prohibition against using tolls on county business. Then if you use tolls to carry out your job, you are responsible for paying the toll or any resulting fines, penalties, et cetera."

Commissioners will vote on a set of formal policy recommendations to address the issue on October 14.

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