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County owes almost $6,000 in toll road late fees

Wednesday, April 15, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

On Tuesday Travis County Commissioners learned that county employees had racked up $6,239.32 in toll road fees and fines — with the majority of that money, $5,300, made up of fines for not paying on time. The drivers should have paid the fines at the time, but since the county owns the cars, the county is stuck with the bill.


The situation mirrors an incident this fall when it was revealed that the county owed the city of Austin $10,000 for employee parking fines and violations. The city ended up giving the county a break, charging them $4,800, and the county was able to use an affidavit to turn many of the individuals over to the city. In November, commissioners amended the county’s vehicle usage policy and forbade toll road usage as well as illegal parking.


The $6,200 in fines occurred before that policy went into effect. In a letter to the commissioners, Joe Gieselman, Executive Director of Transportation and Natural Resources, wrote, “without a policy and a budget in place, these toll charges went unpaid and therefore also incurred penalties.”  The county owes TxDOT $5,287, CTRMA $794 and Harris Country Toll Road Authority, in Houston, $158. Gieselman said the total sum had been whittled down to exclude emergency vehicles, which are exempt from tolls.


Gieselman told commissioners that unlike when the city of Austin allowed the county to transfer the parking fines to individual drivers, “in this case, the law says the county, because it owns the vehicle, is responsible.” There is not currently a mechanism to transfer the fees from owner of the vehicle to the operator.


“Toll road people aren’t into bargaining; it’s between us and the employee,” said Judge Sam Biscoe. He continued, “One, don’t take the county vehicle on the toll road. Two, if you do, pay the toll. Three, if you don’t it’s your responsibility, plus you have to notify your supervisor that you used the toll and it’s outstanding. Then, if you don’t pay it… we take disciplinary action up to and including taking the car or termination.”


Gieselman said the current policy dealt only with point number one. “Well, I just articulated a new policy,” said the Judge to a chorus of chuckles. Gieselman said the county would need to change its current procedures in order to legally transfer liability for the fines to the operators, and he suggested the Court take swift action since the fines continue to grow.


Further complicating matters is the issue of authorization. Gieselman said the operators “were just following orders” before the current policy was enacted banning county employees from using toll roads in non-emergency vehicles. Because every department has different policies for how it tracks employee car usage, finding the individuals behind the wheel could be a difficult proposition.


Biscoe said that county employees have already reached out to the toll road operators. “We have asked them to waive the penalty in the name of freedom, justice and equality and other democratic values and they said no.”  He wanted to know if staff had asked “higher ups” who may have the authority to waive fines. When he learned no such conversation had taken place he quipped, “Sounds like a job for our new commissioner to me.”


Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber stoically nodded that she would get on the task, and Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez volunteered to make calls as well. Judge Biscoe said that “we can’t make CTRMA reduce the penalty, but we can certainly ask them to. We can go as high up as we possibly can and I can live with the answer.”


CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein told In Fact Daily, “I do not think we are permitted by law to exempt a county pick-up truck or dump truck or unmarked car. Those cars are not exempt.” He said his understanding was, “state law does not allow us to exempt anything other than emergency vehicles, army vehicles and Cap Metro buses.”


Biscoe told In Fact Daily, “I don’t know why they wouldn’t reduce the penalties for a governmental entity, especially since the tolls were new.”  The item will be on next week’s County Court agenda.

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