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Pencils and Parking Tickets: The Potential of Donations-For-Fines Programs

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ian Hutcheson
August 18, 2019

As summer wanes and America’s youth reluctantly take up their pencils and notebooks again, some local governments have found a new way to ensure that these supplies follow students back to school. This summer, several local governments have passed ordinances which allow parking tickets to be paid for with donations of school supplies. Whether or not they are intended as such, these donations-for-fines policies are a creative approach to two common problems for governments—school funding and equitable civil fine enforcement. Although promising, the limitations of these policies make them more supplementary than sufficient in meaningfully confronting either issue.

Donations-for-Fines Programs

On June 19, 2019, the Las Vegas City Council voted to allow parking tickets issued in a month-long span to be paid for with donations of school supplies of equal or greater value to the ticket. Other local authorities, including in Anchorage, Alaska; Olathe, Kan.; and Wheeling, W. Va., quickly followed suite with similar programs. While the details of different cities’ programs vary, they are related in that they are imaginative approaches to two persistent problems for governments: funding for K-12 education and equity in the social impact of civil fines.

Pencil Problems

Public funding for K-12 education in the United States exploded onto the national stage in February 2018 when teachers in West Virginia protested at the state Capitol over low teacher salaries. Protests quickly spread to other states, including Oklahoma, Arizona and North Carolina, over similar concerns of pay inequity and government support for K-12 education.

A common refrain from protesting educators was the need for teachers to pay out-of-pocket for basic classroom materials. This grievance was supported by a May 2018 report from the National Center for Education Statistics which found that 94% of teachers pay for classroom supplies with their own money, on average $500 annually. The inadequate provision of classroom supplies is seen as a compounding factor in wage inequality for educators who need to draw from their already lacking salaries to provide for these basic materials.

Tickets to Nowhere

An issue with similar implications for financial equity is the excessive impact that civil fines and their enforcement have on disadvantaged communities. The reasoning behind this idea is that any charge, such as a parking ticket, that is flat or fixed is equal only in theory or in circumstances where the charged persons have an equal capacity to pay. In reality, flat charges become regressive in that they are more difficult to pay the less money a person has.

Parking tickets are almost universally flat in the United States and thus it is not surprising that some cities have begun reassessing their civil fine policies. In July, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot outlined her ticket-debt relief plan designed to reduce fine indebtedness among Chicago’s minority population. Local governments like Chicago are beginning to realize that the social ills they are charged with addressing can be exacerbated by their own revenue generating activities, and that reform is needed if they are to make life easier for their more vulnerable residents.

Imperfect, but Promising

Although they may be viewed as a novelty, recent donations-for-fines programs have the potential to simultaneously address two problematic issues: funding for K-12 education and social equity in civil fines policies. The City Council in Sioux Falls, S.D. is considering a donations-for-fines policy and it is reported that the city’s monthly parking fine revenue averages around $21,000. The Sioux Falls School District claims to employ over 1,800 teachers. If each of these teachers spent $500 annually on classroom supplies this would amount to a $900,000 deficit. Assuming that a Sioux Falls donations-for-fines policy would require donations of at least equal value to the ticket, such a program could reduce this estimated shortfall by at most 2 percent per month that the program was active.

Predicting the effect of these policies on the disparate social impact of ticket debt is more challenging. Two trial studies undertaken by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) demonstrated the importance of salience in encouraging people to pay parking tickets. BIT found that people were more likely to remit fines in response to a more salient stimulus, or one which their, “Attention is drawn towards,” according to a BIT report. It may be that the more salient option of paying for a parking ticket with a donation would compel some violators who might otherwise have slipped into debt to pay.

The regressive nature of parking fines would remain unaddressed however, if donations need to be of at least equal value to the ticket. Olathe’s policy recognizes donations equal to half the value of the fine as full credit towards payment. Olathe’s, “Discounted donations,” option may offer the best hope for addressing social equity, but it would also mean fewer dollars towards school supplies.

The shortcomings of these donations-for-fines programs make it clear that they are not sufficient towards addressing either the deficit in school supply funding or the equity concerns over ticket debt. Instead, these policies should be viewed as a supplement to broader and more direct initiatives in tackling these problems.


Author: Ian Hutcheson, MPA is a Management & Budget Analyst for the City of Oklahoma City and a member of the ASPA Oklahoma Chapter. He is a 2018 graduate of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Kansas. Ian’s professional areas of interest include city management, finance and budget, economic development and urban design. Contact: [email protected].

Twitter: ihutch01



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