Last year, City Council passed an ordinance that would put a hold on vehicle registrations for which there are outstanding red light camera fines. The city’s ability to do this is contingent on cooperation from the county, as it is the Tax Assessor’s office that handles vehicle registrations. As the city prepares to vote on a contract to reimburse the Tax Assessor’s office for its efforts in flagging those records, Commissioners Court has thrown a wrench into the plan.
Last month, Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee expressed reluctance about the contract and asked that it be removed from the agenda for further study. Tax Assessor-Collector Leo Vasquez had asked commissioners to approve a five-year, $36,000-a-year contract with the city to reimburse his office for processing the flagged records, telling the court he expected few citizens would be turned away.
The Texas Transportation Code gives the county tax collector the option to refuse to register a vehicle if a red-light camera citation is owed, but only if the owner has been given two notices demanding payment. In addition, Texas law allows refusal of vehicle registration if the owner has an outstanding warrant for failure to appear to pay a city traffic fine, or owes the county money for taxes, fees or fines. Currently, the county only blocks vehicle registrations for motorists who have delinquent tollroad fines.
[Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia] Garcia said she is concerned that residents whose registrations are blocked could face penalties if they are ticketed for an expired registration.
“All it does if you tack on fees, you’re going to make if more difficult to collect and right now is not the time to be beating someone to death with fines and fees,” said Garcia, former chief of Houston municipal courts.
Emphasis mine. I appreciate Commissioner Garcia’s concern, but if it is such a concern, isn’t it also a concern for toll road scofflaws? Harris County is mighty vigilant about collecting the fines it is owed, which can be substantial in some cases, and it has the authority to arrest those who don’t pay. Does this mean that the Court thinks that now is also not the time to enforce the collection of EZ Tag violations as well? Or is that different somehow?
One more thing:
County Judge Ed Emmett questioned why the county was being asked to block registration only of those with unpaid red-light camera citations, and not those who failed to pay tickets issued by police.
George Hammerlein, director of inter-governmental affairs with the tax office, said the data from red-light camera citations is easier to use than criminal court data, which can be difficult to determine whether a conviction is final.
“Other counties do it and it works quite well,” he said. “Montgomery County even checks to see if you’ve paid your property taxes. We do it for the Harris County Toll Road Authority — if you don’t pay your toll road fines, you’ll get a flag and can’t register your car till you pay them.”
It’s interesting to me that the Tax Assessor’s office is now on board with this idea. They had expressed skepticism about it when it was first proposed. I wonder if the departure of Paul Bettencourt had anything to do with that, or if it’s just the case that the city managed to answer all of their questions. More background on this matter here and from KUHF, KTRK, and Grits.