City of Houston owed $300M in unpaid traffic tickets

HOUSTON This week, we're shaking the city's couch cushions to see how much money might be under there in unpaid bills. Now we turn to unpaid tickets, and if you pay yours, it'll make you angry to see how many people aren't paying theirs.

When we took our couch to Houston Municipal Court, it didn't take long to find people scraping under their own couch cushions to pay their bills to the city.

"I paid out $2,200 in February on traffic tickets," Houstonian Rhonda Young said.

When we told Young about how much the city is owed in unpaid tickets, she was stunned.

"Take a guess," we told her.

"Probably over thousands and thousands of dollars," she guessed.

How about $300 million?

And after parting with her own dollars, she wasn't happy.

"It pisses me off. I don't think it's right," she said.

"We do everything that we can within in the law to get people to respond," said Houston Chief Municipal Court Judge Barbara Hartle.

Hartle is the woman responsible for getting all that money back in the city's hands.

That big bill is split between landlords who haven't paid building code violations and drivers who won't pay traffic tickets.

The worst offenders owe tens of thousands of dollars apiece. Judges do issue warrants for their arrest, but there aren't enough police officers to go looking for them and threats to hold up their driver's license renewals don't really do much good.

"It's usually somebody who's driving without a driver's license and insurance," Hartle said.

Court statistics suggest as many as one out of every four ticketed drivers has no license, so holding they're license renewal hoping they'll pay is pointless.

"We've got very little hammer if you don't have a driver's license," Hartle said.

Mayor Anise Parker told every city department to find that hammer though and clean up a long-neglected uncollected debt problem.

City Attorney Dave Feldman is working to sue every city debtor with a bill over $1,000, which could be hundreds of lawsuits.

"People have to know that the city is going to come after them. They have to have that incentive to pay," Feldman said.

With hundreds of city layoffs and millions in service cuts, Houstonians deserve it.

"I think they should work their tails off," Houstonian Aston Bernard Lipscomb said. "We need that money."

In the last two, the top delinquent landlord paid half their bill and four of the top 10 traffic delinquents paid up, too. Nearly $67,000 found under the city's couch.

"They should tear that couch apart," Lipscomb said.

Only $307.5 million to go.

There is one way to pay those tickets without scraping together the money under your seat -- go to jail.

We're told you can work the fines off. The jail pays as much as $30 an hour against your fines.

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