City of Houston sitting on a fat couch?

May 18, 2011 4:21:14 PM PDT
The potential fire fighter layoffs are part of the city's overall plan to cut roughly $75 million from its overall budget. It is a lot of money, and hundreds of employees will be laid off to find it. But we found hundreds of millions more in unpaid bills Houstonians owe the city.

Chances are if you looked right now, you could probably find a couple dollars in change under the couch you are sitting on. The city's couch, though, is far bigger.

The good news is that the city is trying harder to get it. The bad news is that most of the debts are so old it won't be easy.

The city is owed $992 million in unpaid fees fines and various bills, including $29 million of it in unpaid parking tickets -- and we think we know one reason why.

We took the search for the city's missing money to the streets, where Houstonians have racked up more than $29 million worth of unpaid parking tickets.

"I get tickets often because I tend to let (the meter) run over sometimes," Houstonian Mark Mitchell said.

Mitchell pays his, and so does Robert Pelton.

"Of course, I always pay my parking ticket," Pelton said.

But we've got a secret. They might not have to. If you only have one or two of those, the city isn't going to do a thing if you don't pay.

"We hope that you don't do that, but the truth of the matter is that there's no other way for me to be able to find you," said Lilliana Rambo with Houston Parking Management.

Of 162,000 car and truck owners who owe parking fines to the city of Houston, 130,000 of them have fewer than three tickets. When it comes to collecting those, there's not a thing the city does to get it except send a notice or two in the mail.

"There's really not a hammer that I have in order to get you," Rambo said.

Cars are only booted after three or more unpaid parking tickets. The same goes for future credit bureau reporting the parking department.

There are plenty of people with big bills. When the city released the top 10 parking scofflaws, UPS and FedEx topped the list. They paid up.

We couldn't find the first private person on the list. We did find the guy who rents her home in a gated Pearland community, but his landlord didn't call back and we don't know if she'll ever pay her $2,600 bill.

The next guy on the list racked up his bill parking an 18-wheeler on a cul-de-sac. But he's now in prison on a non-parking-related charge and chances are he's not paying those parking fines anytime soon.

That brings us back to all those people who owe one or two -- cheating the city by skating on their tickets.

"If you want the city to run properly, you should be paying the meter or you should be paying the fine," Mitchell said.

It brings our search for the money full circle, right back to those couch cushions and the reason we brought it out here.

"It's sort of like money under the couch cushions waiting to be found?" we asked Mitchell.

"Couldn't agree more. Go get it. I Couldn't agree more," he said.

We asked the city to give us a breakdown of who owed them money and who has already paid the fine, but it crashed their computer system.

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