NEW YORK, NY — In a city of markdowns, where bargains are prized, New York officials have been offering sharply reduced fines on parking tickets for almost three years and, remarkably, the deep discounts have gone largely unnoticed.
Any driver who challenges a parking ticket — in person, in writing or online — is offered a substantial, guaranteed reduction for most fines, under a program the city quietly introduced in 2005.
Plead guilty to parking at an expired meter in Midtown, for example, and agree to forgo a hearing, and the city will immediately reduce the fine from $65 to $43. No questions asked.
But most people who get tickets, about 80 percent by city estimates, do not challenge them and still simply pay the full fine.
While the willingness to pay full freight may be evidence of civic zeal, it also appears to be an outgrowth of the fact that public knowledge of the program remains slight.
The city has never produced a press release on the program, whose existence has enabled it to reduce the cost of holding hearings on the 10 million tickets it issues each year. Nor is the policy, known as the settlement program, described in the city’s official brochure “Got Tickets? Your Guide to Parking Ticket Hearings.”
The settlement option is mentioned on the city’s Web site, though many drivers do not seem to learn about it until they line up for a hearing to challenge a ticket and a clerk advises them that there is another option.
“How are you supposed to know that?” said Jennifer Zarcone, who has received hundreds of parking tickets in the 16 years she has lived in Brooklyn without ever hearing about the program. “Do they not want you to know?”
Councilman Vincent J. Gentile of Brooklyn, who has been alerting his constituents to the program, said he can understand why the city is not shouting from the rooftops about the schedule of fine reductions for people who challenge tickets. “Obviously, if they can get someone to pay the full fine,” he said, “it would be more beneficial to the city.”
But city officials say the program’s low profile is not part of an effort to keep dutiful ticket-payers in the dark. “Since this is offered to everyone universally, it was not as necessary” to publicize it, said Owen Stone, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Finance, which runs all parking ticket adjudication programs.
Mr. Stone said the settlements, which function like plea bargains in a court setting, have worked to reduce administrative overhead in areas like the five hearing centers. More than half the drivers who challenge tickets now agree to forgo a hearing and plead guilty in exchange for a reduced fine, he said.
That has allowed the city to pare its stable of parking judges by nearly half, from an average of 222 in 2005 to an average of 128 this year. As a result, the city now spends about $2 million less on administrative costs each year than it did before the program began.
The city has separate settlement programs for commercial vehicles that are meant to ease payment and also have helped to reduce hearing costs. Delivery companies that enroll, for example, waive their right to a hearing or an appeal, and have all of their fines reduced, in many cases to zero, depending on the severity and location of the infraction.
City officials say that if the number of people challenging tickets, and getting the discounts, were to rise substantially and affect the economic viability of the program, the city could always just cancel it. “It is unlikely that we would ever reach that tipping point,” Mr. Stone said.
Currently, city statistics show that 13 percent of individuals who receive parking tickets end up challenging them, a proportion that is unchanged since the settlement program was introduced.
“It’s not like we rolled it out and everyone came running in for hearings,” said Mary Gotsopoulis, the chief administrative law judge for the city’s Parking Violations Bureau, which adjudicates tickets.
Chris Nellen, an unemployed copywriter, said if he had known about the program he would have challenged a ticket he received on Oct. 24.
Mr. Nellen, 40, said he had pulled his gray 2008 Toyota into a space near his girlfriend’s house in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that morning. He had not gotten a ticket in years and had not seen a sign down the block prohibiting parking for street cleaning from 7:30 to 8 a.m., so he said he was shocked to find a $45 ticket on the car when he returned. But he paid the ticket (and a $2 service fee) without protest to avoid further frustration.
Mr. Nellen said he did not think a possible fine reduction was worth waiting for a hearing with a judge. But had he known an automatic reduction by a clerk was available, it would have been different. “If I could walk in and walk out, absolutely!” he said.
Ms. Gotsopoulis said that the efficiency of the hearing system has improved because a large slice of those who once waited for judges are now being dealt with by clerks, reducing the waiting time.
“You can come in during your lunch time and get service within that hour,” she said. “Prior to the settlements, hearings by mail took a number of months before you would get decisions. Now, you can get a decision in two to four weeks.”
The clerks who work in the settlement program use a set schedule of fine reductions, which are tied to the severity of the infraction. For certain tickets, like parking at a fire hydrant, no settlement is possible. People who challenge a ticket by mail, or online, are given the same option after they request a hearing.
Those who challenge a ticket also learn about some new rules that govern the hearing process: Judges no longer have the discretion to reduce fines. They can either find a driver guilty or dismiss the ticket. They are no longer able to set lenient fines for people who seek to plead “guilty with an explanation.”
The city says using a fine reduction schedule, instead of judicial discretion, creates a fairer, more uniform adjudication process. Officials also estimate that they are collecting more in fines with the reduction schedule because judges actually dismissed more tickets and gave greater reductions under the old system.
But the change to a set schedule has rankled some critics, who say it deprives citizens of due process and casts clerks in the role of judges.
“When they offered the settlement, they touted customer service,” said Ruth Kraft, a former law professor at New York University who was an administrative law judge for the city’s Parking Violations Bureau for nine years. “Customer service should not trump due process.”
Discounts do produce smiles, though, as was evident one recent morning at the Manhattan business center. Two of the six drivers waiting in the line at one point agreed to accept the clerk’s offer of a settlement. One of them was Brigitte Alexander, who had come to fight her tickets because she had received two within nine minutes.
“To me, it was the principle,” she said. The clerk examined Ms. Alexander’s tickets and saw that the address on one was unreadable.
On the second, the clerk offered to reduce the fine to $43 from $65.
Ms. Alexander’s total cost fell to $43 from $130.
Another satisfied bargain shopper.
“The line moved quickly, it was efficient,” Ms. Alexander said. All in all, a good experience that she characterized as “nicer than the post office.”
Joel Stonington contributed reporting.