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Refunds for phantom tow fees scarce

Of the hundreds of drivers who paid $40 tickets for phantom police tows, only three received refunds, city officials said Friday.

The rest never applied for the refunds.

Buffalo's fiscal watchdog thinks better steps should be taken to make motorists whole.

"We don't have a right to keep this money," Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo said as he released an audit critical of towing practices.

But Mayor Byron W. Brown's top legal adviser noted the city gave motorists who paid the $40 charge six weeks last summer to seek a refund by submitting a form.

"People had the opportunity," said City Corporation Counsel Alisa A. Lukasiewicz. "If they didn't take advantage of that opportunity, then it was their decision."

But a new audit that the Common Council will receive Tuesday urges the city to consider new ways to reimburse people.

"We're punishing these citizens," SanFilippo insisted. "They've been assessed fees for services that never occurred."

Lukasiewicz said it would be unfair to imply that the city didn't try to make refunds available. She said the claims process was publicized and implemented to make it as convenient as possible. People could mail claims without visiting City Hall.

Yet the city never sent letters to the motorists who paid phantom tows.

SanFilippo said it's possible some people paid without realizing that towing fees were added to parking fines.

The audit raises many questions about towing practices. One concern is whether the city is following proper policies for routing business to various towing companies.

Darryl McPherson, the city's chief auditor, is expected to discuss the findings with Council members in May.

One key element in the audit focuses on a problem disclosed last year by The Buffalo News involving people who were improperly assessed towing fees. The News investigation found that most of the improper summonses were written by one officer who assessed towing charges to 242 motorists even though their vehicles were not towed. Officer Milton J. Jeffries was suspended without pay.

The new city audit reviewed a sample of 83 tickets written in 2006, or about 18 percent of all summonses that included towing charges in that year. Auditors found that 83 percent of the summonses involved vehicles that were never towed. Of the 43 percent who appealed, all of them saw the fines forgiven.

Most never fought the fees, but Lukasiewicz said they had numerous chances to do so. In the early stages, people were able to call the Parking Violations Bureau and have improper fees waived. There also was a formal appeals process, and last summer's refund program.

But the refunds only applied to improper towing charges levied in 2006, after Brown took office. Jeffries had written up the improper towing fees as far back as February 2005, the Buffalo News investigation revealed.

"The audit demonstrates an unfairness on the part of the city in issuing parking summonses," SanFilippo said. "This needs to be corrected."

Why not just mail checks to people who the city knows paid fees for tows that didn't happen?

The Law Department thinks there might be legal obstacles, given the fact that individuals who failed to appeal the fines technically pleaded guilty. SanFilippo said if issuing refund checks automatically isn't an option, other strategies must be considered.

"Let's find a procedure to deal with this," he said.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

plakamp@buffnews.com

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