Towing away bad policy

In a city with some of the worst income inequality in the nation, too many families in San Francisco now find themselves just one missed rent payment away from eviction and displacement.

That’s just one of the reasons why it is time for San Francisco city government to reform a system of ruinous fines and fees that disproportionally punish our poorest residents and can actually see a resident evicted because of just one mistake.

Take just one all too-common mistake: having your car towed by The City. Right now, it costs a minimum of $483.75 if your car is towed, and with storage charges, fines of $700 or more are not uncommon.

Of course, we don’t want to encourage unnecessary driving or people parking where it is prohibited. But right now, our towing and storage fees are among the highest in the nation — more than double the fees in other major cities. It isn’t what we are paying the tow company that is out of line with other cities. It is the “administrative fee” we are charging — more than half the total amount of the fine.

With this tow fine, and with so many others, The City is charging high penalties to fund for basic services. In the case of the tow fines, the funds go to pay for our Parking Control Officers.

Essentially, we have created a highly regressive tax system, with basic services like parking control funded by punitive fines. If a high-end luxury car is towed, it is a very bad day for the owner. But if that pickup truck or minivan is towed and is absolutely crucial for a working family to get the kids to school and the parents to work, that fine can be the difference between making a rent payment and missing it.

We need a progressive tax system, not a regressive one. We are generating such wealth in this city — do we really need to fund basic services with what can be ruinous fines?

In the wake of Ferguson, Mo., the U.S. Justice Department and many others noted that relying on fees and fines to pay for municipal services often led to abuse and tended to disproportionately impact low-income residents and communities of color. There is anecdotal evidence that this is exactly what is happening in San Francisco — evidence that certainly warrants more study.

The hardship from these fees is compounded by subsequent debt collection efforts. A person who is unable to pay nearly $500 to retrieve his or her vehicle is unlikely to be able to pay the additional fees and interests that stack up. Yet, debt collectors contracted by The City have little incentive to work with residents to establish reasonable payment plans or any sort of debt forgiveness. And those unpaid debts can tar a person’s credit history for years to come.

We need common sense reform — starting with fines that encourage compliance without impoverishing residents.

First, we should look at decoupling fees from enforcement officers’ salaries. Our officers shouldn’t have to worry about their department’s budget or their own paychecks when they enforce the law.

Second, we need to lower the administrative costs overall to put San Francisco more in line with other cities in California.

Third, we should eliminate third-party debt collection and have The City work directly with residents to establish reasonable payment plans and a progressive fine schedule that takes into account income and ability to pay.

We firmly believe government should be lifting people up, particularly in those communities that suffer through economic hardships and discrimination. Instead, many municipal fees and fines keep those residents down.

Let’s take a step towards making San Francisco more livable for all residents — let’s tow away these bad policies.

Jane Kim represents District 6, and John Avalos represents District 11 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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