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Some cities offer short windows where residents can opt to clear tickets by making donations, such as to schools and animal shelters.
Paying parking tickets isn’t usually an activity that most drivers enjoy, or one that makes them feel very good about themselves. But in a few cities around the country, residents can take the option to pay for their tickets in alternate ways that help their local communities.
Recently, the police department of Muncie, Indiana, offered people the chance not to pay in cash, but in kitty litter. For five days in July, residents could donate food or supplies (of an equal amount to the ticket) to a local animal shelter, then bring the receipt for their purchase to the police station to have their parking ticket cleared. Only certain tickets qualified for the trade, like those given for staying past the allowed time in certain zone; others, like illegally parking in a handicap spot, still had to be paid in cash.
During that window, about a dozen people made over $600 in donations, even though most tickets were only worth about $25. The Muncie Police Department said that the offer got more publicity than they expected. “A lot of people have donated cat food and litter this week! Most of these people didn't even have a parking ticket,” the agency tweeted. “We are glad this this week’s unique promotion helped spread the word!”
Ashley Honeycutt, the shelter’s office manager, told CNN that the community’s response was much needed during “kitten season” when the shelter was running low on supplies. "I don't know if the police department plans on doing this again, but we're incredibly grateful to them and the community. Their response was overwhelming," she said.
Other cities, like Woodstock, Virginia, Anchorage, Alaska, and Greensboro, North Carolina, have also spent portions of their summer collecting donations instead of ticket fees. In these municipalities, however, the focus has been on school supplies, with the hope that donations will help fill classrooms with much needed pencils, crayons, notebooks, and scissors.
In some of those locations, drivers don’t have to make up the full amount of their ticket with their donation. In Anchorage, for example, two hundred pencils cost about $10, but will be accepted for a $20 ticket, with the rest of the amount being waved.
Many of the cities cite Las Vegas as their inspiration, since that city has run several donation drives since 2016 in lieu of collecting ticket revenue. Las Vegas city spokesperson Jace Radke said the initiatives are worth the loss of revenue.
“No one loves getting a parking ticket,” Radke said. “But Las Vegas has some very popular locations and we need to rotate the cars out, so letting people make a donation just gives us a way to be more customer friendly. They’re still paying back their citation, but they have a better feeling about it.”
So far, Las Vegas has collected school supplies twice and completed a holiday toy drive last year. Each of these drives, which have to be approved by the city council, lasted for a month. The school supplies drive this summer saw over 50 tickets paid in donations, totalling more than $1,700 worth of supplies. Because of the publicity the drive sparked, the city also received $5,000 worth of school supplies donated by Bic.
Radke said that most individuals donated more than their citation required. “People know that teachers spend a lot of their own money on supplies for the classroom,” he said. “All these donations go to a nonprofit that helps teachers meet the needs of their classrooms, so people can see that it really benefits the educators in our community.”
While Las Vegas requires that drivers who opt to donate bring in a receipt showing that the value of their donation matches or exceeds the amount of their ticket, other municipalities have taken an honor system approach. Police Chief Eric Reiley of Woodstock, Virginia, recently oversaw the donation drive in his municipality, which he said “took the high road.”
“We wanted to make it as easy as possible to participate, so we thought about it, and decided not to make people bring in a receipt,” he said. “Theoretically, someone could have brought in one pencil and tried to pay off their parking ticket with that, and we wouldn’t turn them away, but most people contributed much more than they had to.”
Reiley said the program started at the request of staff at the local school, and wasn’t difficult to implement in the small municipality about 100 miles north of Charlottesville. “We don’t write a ton of parking tickets to start with, so it didn’t make a huge impact on our revenue,” he said.
Given the low volume of tickets, which are usually only $10, Woodstock was able to run the program longer than most other cities, for about six weeks. Participants brough school supplies either to the police department or the town municipal office, and officers then brought boxes of donations to the local elementary school. Reiley said that the school can distribute those supplies to children who run out of supplies or whose parents can’t afford them.
Woodstock ended the program at the beginning of the school year in August, but Reiley said donations are still rolling in, and they have a full box of supplies to donate again next week. Through advertising the program on social media and in the local paper, he said they had a similar experience to Muncie, where people donated who didn’t even have tickets to pay off. Interest in the program was even sparked outside of Woodstock, as Reiley said that other municipalities in Virginia have called him to ask how they managed the program.
“We’re happy to share our insight, and hopefully this program spreads to benefit other communities—and there was such an immense amount of local support for the project that we’ll definitely make this an annual program,” he said. “Why not take a negative situation, where you find yourself on the wrong end of a parking ticket, and turn it into a positive one to help a child in need?”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.