ST. PETERSBURG — Brandon Pearce racked up more than $1,000 in parking tickets and late fees before he was forced to pay.
It wasn't a cop at his door or a judge's order that finally got him to settle his debt. It was a boot on his beloved 2007 Cadillac CTS. His car was immobilized in its downtown parking spot until he paid his fines, which he did within minutes of discovering the metal device affixed to the driver's side wheel.
"I wouldn't call it the best way to get someone to pay their tickets," said Pearce, who owns a tattoo parlor on Central Avenue. "But for sure, that was a good way to get it done. It was my fault. I should have paid the fines right then and there when I got them."
The city's booting program started April 22 and already has netted nearly $25,000 in unpaid fines. In all, 33 vehicles — tied to 450 unpaid tickets — were booted.
"Everyone's paid," said Dave Metz, the city's senior administrator of internal services. "It's been very successful, and we've avoided any altercations with the public. So far, so good."
It's a program that Mayor Bill Foster recommended last year to help recoup $2 million in unpaid parking tickets dating back to 2003. The City Council approved an ordinance that allowed parking enforcement officials to clap metal devices on the cars registered to owners who have three or more parking tickets, or who have one outstanding ticket for unlawful parking in a handicapped space.
The owner has 24 hours to pay a $25 boot fee and the unpaid fines or risk getting towed. In the program's first month, three cars were towed. They were later picked up and all the fees were paid.
To avoid confrontations, the city purposefully chose a large, "barrel-chested" former police officer to apply the boots, said Richard Bulger, the city's director of billings and collections.
"We get a few rude comments, but most of the time, people aren't around," Bulger said.
The new program is part of Foster's reliance on technology to modify behavior and collect fees while doing it. He's been a big advocate for red light cameras, which will be installed this summer.
In the boot program, parking enforcement officials drive a three-wheel vehicle that has a camera attached to it that scans license tags of parked cars. The camera is linked to a database of frequent violators. If the car belongs to someone with three or more tickets, an alert will pop up on a laptop computer screen. The officer then calls in the plate number, it's double-checked for the violations, and he sends someone to boot the car.
"Literally, we give someone 10 notices before they get put on the boot list," Foster said. "I'm patient. I don't want people to think I'm not patient and fair. Everyone makes a mistake, and I'll be the mayor of second and third chances. But there comes a time when you have to comply with the law."
Foster hopes that once the word spreads about the booting, people with tickets will head directly to 1 Fourth St. N to pay them at the city's transportation and parking office.
As for Pearce, he said he got the message but that it still doesn't solve the larger issue of parking downtown.
His tattoo parlor is on Central, and he likes to park there so he can keep an eye on his car. It cost him $25,000 and he's quite proud of it. But parking on Central has a two-hour limit, so if he doesn't move by then, he gets a ticket.
Often, he said, he can't get up to move it because he's in the middle of an ink job and doesn't want to prolong the discomfort of his client by taking a break.
He said the city should concentrate more on improving its parking than punishing downtown workers. Still, he'll continue to park on Central and hope to avoid future tickets.
"The boot didn't financially destroy me," Pearce said, "but I can think of other things I would have rather spent my money on."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or email@example.com.