Community leaders in Vermont’s largest city say even they were surprised by the initial success of a pilot program to clear backlogs of unpaid parking fines.
Burlington’s "Fines for Food" brought in tens of thousands of dollars, and through an innovative promotion, a nonprofit organization is now sharing in that money.
“We all need good news in this time,” said Chapin Spencer, the director of the Burlington Public Works Department, which houses the city’s parking division.
As NECN reported in December, from late 2021 through mid-January of 2022, Burlington tried a creative pilot project aimed at taking some of the sting out of paying overdue fines — by telling folks if they would finally come forward and settle their old accounts, half the money would go to Feeding Chittenden.
Feeding Chittenden is Vermont’s largest direct service provider for emergency food needs.
"I was obviously pleasantly surprised," said Burlington City Councilor Karen Paul, referring to the nearly $40,000 that was the charity’s share of the money.
Of the 9,000 or so letters advertising the promotion that were sent out to addresses linked to overdue accounts, roughly 10% of recipients responded with payments for Fines for Food, city officials said.
"We heard from people from as far away as Hawaii that paid their parking ticket online," Paul noted. "And they said, 'We wanted to do that because we knew half of it was going to an incredibly worthy cause.'"
Bill Grady of Nashua, New Hampshire told NECN he paid off his daughter’s old tickets from college — and found himself not crabby about it, because of the charity-focused approach.
"You made me part of the solution, instead of just paying a fine," Grady said of Burlington’s approach. "The next thing I did after I wrote the check is called my aldermen, and I said, 'Let’s do this here!'"
Feeding Chittenden said the nearly $40,000 will go a long way.
"Forty thousand dollars is a lot of help for people that are homeless right now during a time where it’s really cold, and also for people in temporary housing," said Rob Meehan of Feeding Chittenden. "What we’re doing is taking that money and turning it into actual meals that will get delivered throughout the county."
Meehan estimated the donation would translate to more than 25,000 meals for neighbors in need through various Feeding Chittenden programs — including home deliveries and pickups from the site in Burlington’s Old North End.
With hundreds of thousands of dollars still owed to Burlington in overdue parking fines, Councilor Paul said the city is working on bringing the program back for another run at the end of the year.
According to a news release from the office of Mayor Miro Weinberger, the revenue brought in during Fines for Food was far greater than the city typically sees in payments for overdue parking fines. The city therefore did not suffer a loss of revenue from tickets by the charitable donation, Weinberger’s office added.
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The Burlington Public Works Department said most people do pay their tickets, but those who historically have not paid have racked up roughly $1,000,000 in overdue charges.
Although Fines for Food has now ended, overdue tickets can be paid online at https://www.burlingtonvt.gov/DPW/Parking or in person at the office of the Burlington Public Works Department at 645 Pine St.