Imagine leaving the office, a restaurant or even a Rays game to discover that your car has been immobilized by an unyielding metal contraption fastened to a wheel.
Prepare for that probability if you have three or more unpaid parking tickets in the city of St. Petersburg. The city has begun clamping the wheels of recalcitrant parking violators.
Two vehicles have already been snagged by the new booting program, targeting vehicles with outstanding tickets between Fifth avenues N and S and 16th Street to Tampa Bay.
James Connell of 13980 Lake Point Drive, Clearwater, owned one of those vehicles. According to the city, he quickly handed over $1,985 and got the boot removed.
Jonathan Fairchild, whose car was also booted Friday, did not pay his $375 in outstanding tickets within 24 hours and his vehicle was towed. But by Tuesday afternoon, Fairchild, who according to the city lives at 201 Fifth St. S, had paid up and retrieved his car.
The two booted vehicles and the tickets they accumulated represent a fraction of the scores of tickets that have gone unpaid. They now total about $1.5 million, said Richard Bulger, the city's director of billing and collections.
Scofflaws are being given fair warning.
"Every ticket gets three notices and once you have more than three tickets, a final letter is sent letting you know that you could be booted after 10 days,'' Bulger said.
The three booting devices will be installed by city employees during business hours and removed by them after the tickets and $25 boot removal fee have been paid, Bulger said. Booted vehicles will be towed after 24 hours, which will mean an additional cost for owners, he said.
The new punitive program angers Matthew David Neal, owner of Cafe Bohemia at 937 Central Ave. He ranks No. 5 on the city's "Top 10'' parking ticket offender list, which shows vehicle owners owing from $2,535 to $8,405.
Neal is furious about parking problems downtown.
"I'm open from 8 a.m. to midnight, six days a week, a block and a half from the baseball stadium, and there's no way to negotiate parking when there's a ball game,'' he said.
"If they want to promote local business, they need to promote free parking. My employees all have parking ticket bills with the city —not as bad as mine.''
At first he paid his tickets, said Neal, who has owned his restaurant for 7 1/2 years.
"The first year I was open, I paid the city about $1,100,'' he said.
Once, he sent a check for $300, but the city said it never received it, the money was taken out of his account and was not credited to his outstanding tickets, Neal said.
Things got out of hand when a death in his family forced him to leave town for a few days. He racked up more tickets.
"I talked to several people in the parking department, and they couldn't work anything out with me,'' he said.
Still, with 51 tickets and owing $3,268.50, Neal said he is not worried about the booting program. He has sold his car.
Friday, the day the booting program began, Fairchild's modest white car, parked at Fifth Street S and Second Avenue S, sported an eye-catching, bright yellow clamp.
"Warning! Your car has been immobilized,'' a notice pasted to the driver's window read.
It gave two numbers for the owner to call to arrange for the device to be removed. During business hours, drivers can take care of the problem at the city's parking citation office at Third Street N and Central Avenue. After hours and on weekends, they have to call Tri-J, a towing company.
"Tri-J is authorized to accept payment via credit card for our tickets,'' Bulger said. "The owner of a vehicle will need to pay by cash or business check for towing costs and storage costs.''
Drivers shouldn't try removing the contraption on their own. Special tools are needed, Bulger said.
Damaging a boot will mean paying its replacement cost — about $525 — plus that stack of tickets.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.