Santa Monica will anti up $950,000 for their part
September, 25, 2006
Cities across America may owe millions of dollars for citations their corporate partners double billed.
Towns and cities may be gobbling up millions in fees that are not theirs, because many people were paying the same ticket twice after receiving a second notice mailed before payment was received.
Santa Monica officials have decided to act proactively to refund fees that should never have been collected.
In the past three years, 18,000 people – nearly 80 percent of them from outside Santa Monica -- paid nearly $1 million too much to Santa Monica for parking violations, City Manager Lamont Ewell revealed at a special press conference last Wednesday.
He announced the City’s intentions to return the nearly $950,000 accrued over three years to the rightful owners. The city discovered the problem during an internal audit but Ewell said said the problem may apply to other cities across the country.
Identifying people who have paid twice was something neither Santa Monica nor its Dallas-based collection vendor, Affiliated Computer Services, has been doing with accuracy for many years – an oversight that has angered consumer advocates.
California law states that government agencies must identify multiple or duplicate deposits of bail or parking penalties and issue refunds within 30 days of identification.
Doug Heller, executive director the non-profit Foundation for Consumers and Taxpayers’ Rights warned, “This may not just be millions, but tens of millions, owed and may end up being a scandal of much larger proportions.”
Part of the reason for the mismanagement may be the use of a third party vendor, he said.
“The problem with outsourcing government is that they are less tethered to the public,” said Heller.
A complicated and prolonged appeals process and lack of access to human operators may also frustrate any person calling the vendor to contest the double payment, he said.
Despite the criticism, officials from Applied Computer Services, a multi-national Fortune 500 company that operates 100 call centers around the world, said they are only following orders.
“Whatever the city contract requires, we follow,” said Joel Barett, spokesperson for ACS. “It’s not our program, because the City owns the contract.”
With contracts throughout California and the world, ACS and call support vendors like it, enter into agreements with cities of all shapes and sizes.
Some of the agreements are based on flat fees for service, while others, including Santa Monica and West Hollywood, are based on a complicated formula that offers ACS some incentives to collect twice.
Santa Monica officials, however, said ACS was not typically paid for the second transaction when someone paid twice.
While there may be nothing “nefarious,” a full investigation should be launched to ensure that the accounting was an honest oversight, and not government officials looking the other way, Heller said.
“Who knows how long they’ve known about this,” he said. “Not only is the City’s behavior negligent, but their irresponsibility will end up cheating the taxpayers and any legal costs that adds up in any court.”
So how did the City find out about the supposed oversight? A single City employee, Eva Uren, discovered the mistake while revamping the City’s finance department, Ewell said.
It remains unclear how widespread the problem is, cities and their vendors partners nationwide may have charged twice for a single parking mistake.
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