I saw it in the swagger of an officer as she typed up a parking ticket the first morning after I moved to New York City last summer. I was eight minutes late moving my car after the streets were swept. Dollar signs and triple digits had replaced her pupils. I have never since seen an officer writing parking tickets during a time unrelated to street sweeping, even on the multitude of occasions when little old ladies were boxed in by someone stopping in on an old friend to catch up for a "few minutes." It's an example of predatory government and how New York City and hundreds of other municipalities are raising money in this brave new era of no new taxes and Grand Canyon-sized deficits. They're increasing fees and enforcement of petty misdemeanors, often selectively.
And, lest you think I have a bone to pick with NYC, the NY Times documented the phenomenon in an article in its April 10th edition: You'll have to pay a $316 "accident response fee" if you're vehicle is sideswiped in Winter Haven, FL; $4.25 to use streetlights in DC; and $100 if you're caught idling for more than a minute outside of a Staten Island school.
Municipalities claim the practice is merely about shifting the cost of services to community members or to law breakers. But, really, it's a way to keep the coffers full when taxes aren't in vogue. The article cites potential increases greater than fivefold for accessing services such as ordering birth certificates or registering cars in Ohio, and NY issued over 9,000 driving-while-phoning tickets in one day (20 times greater than normal) not long after dips in government revenue began to register.
Just think of the implications for philanthropy, particularly for those of us interested in social justice issues!
Access: With these increases (and only mild extrapolation), vital services, like accident or police response, will be available only to those who can afford it (gone will be the days when you can count on phoning 911 about a prowler without being billed).
Governance: Fines typically exist at levels needed to discourage behavior and/or, to a lesser extent, cover the cost of enforcement. However, municipalities are levying fines in excess of such levels and using the funds to meet budget shortfalls in unrelated areas of government. Do we want governments to operate like businesses extracting commissions or public servants? And do we want to divert police time from pursuing violent crime to enforce parking violations instead?
Fairness and Justice: When a city patrol person tickets you, is s/he being fair or fulfilling a quota determined by a city technocrat to pay for the mayor's next ribbon-cutting ceremony?
Tax Policy: Fees and fines, just like sales tax, act essentially as regressive taxation because they're typically a larger percentage of a lower-income person's wages than a middle- or upper-class person's.
Philanthropy could play plenty of roles in the discussion, whether as advocate for lower-income people, lobbyist for fairness in governance, or even as funder to organizations that facilitate access to vital services. We'd like to open this up to readers:
1. What response is philanthropy making (currently, we're not aware of much direct response)?
2. How can/should philanthropy respond (and is this an area where philanthropy should offer a response at all)?