Dennis Smith knew he had an unpaid parking ticket. He also thought he knew the rules:
Three outstanding tickets and the Philadelphia Parking Authority can boot your car. "That's always what it's been," Smith said Monday, standing outside the violation office.
Last week, the 52-year-old fuel deliverer for an oil company was surprised to walk out of his South Philadelphia rowhouse to find his F-250 pickup booted. He called the agency, sure it was a mistake, but was told the computer had turned up tickets written on his old car and old plate, as far back as 2005.
"It's a bunch of baloney," Smith said. "They're making you pay all these old tickets, some of which I paid off back then. Look at these dates — 12 years ago, six years ago. They're robbing people."
Now, with impound fees, tickets, and late penalties, the PPA says, Smith owes $1,500. Some of those tickets he swore he'd paid off, but he can't prove it. The authority says it will auction off his truck Nov. 21 unless he comes up with the money.
It's not just Smith who's surprised to find his vehicle in PPA custody. In recent months, the authority has ramped up enforcement on scofflaws, going as far back as 20 years in some cases. The agency booted 1,000 more cars in October than in the same month last year, almost a 50 percent increase, according to PPA figures obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News.
The result? The authority's on-street department has brought in $5.6 million more in revenue this fiscal year than it had at the same point a year ago, the PPA said.
The booting blitz could be the answer to how the authority has managed to boost its revenue under interim director Clarena Tolson. The PPA has touted its profits, attributed in part to a leaner payroll, but offered few details beyond that. The authority would neither provide figures about booting nor confirm the numbers obtained by the newspapers.
While frustrating to those caught, booting cars is the PPA's job, spokesman Martin O'Rourke said.
"The PPA understands the unfortunate inconvenience of booting, however without this, the incentive to pay is reduced and compliance with parking regulations diminished," O'Rourke said in a statement. "Failure to make every effort to collect fines does not fulfill our mission to support the City and School District nor does it provide equity for those motorists who park legally and to those who act responsibly to pay tickets when they receive them."
The PPA has long had the legal authority to boot cars because of old tickets, but in June it started matching new tickets to those associated with old plates and cars, internal PPA documents show. That meant many more drivers met the three-ticket threshold for getting the boot.
To beef up enforcement, the agency also recently purchased more vehicles with license-plate-reading capabilities and deployed more crews to scan plates between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m, officials within the agency said.
Before the PPA can boot a vehicle, it must send at least 10 notices on the three-or-more tickets — after a 45-day waiting period, the authority said.
But the booting has become so aggressive, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell is trying to push forward a bill she introduced in February 2016 that would allow one-time forgiveness for tickets more than three years old, provided the recipient pays off the most recent offenses.
"So many people are feeling victimized," Blackwell said. "We have somebody with $10,000 in tickets because they had taken car tickets from 1996. That's ridiculous. And most people can't pay that, so if we want to get money for schools, if we want to get money to the city, then let's come up with something realistic." Blackwell is calling for a Nov. 16 hearing on her bill.
The Kenney administration opposes what she's doing.
Lauren Hitt, the mayor's spokeswoman, said the measure wasn't focused on people with hardships. "We also have concern about the economic impact it would have on the School District," she said. "And it's just also not fair to the people who did pay on time, or who are currently in a payment plan."
One day last week outside the Violations Bureau at Ninth and Filbert, drivers showed off tickets going back to 2003, 2000, even 1997.
"Everybody in there is there for the same reason," said Sonya Reid, 56, a nursing assistant from West Oak Lane who got booted. "All the sudden they've got a boot on their car for something that happened years and years ago."
Echel Miranda's car was booted for a ticket she swears she paid in 2012. She was living in Pennsauken but got a ticket on her old Nissan Altima while out in Philadelphia. Now she drives a Hyundai Sonata.
"I don't even have that bank account anymore, so I'm trying to go through boxes to find bank statements to show I paid it," Miranda said.
For many, an impounded car immobilizes their livelihood.
Rashida Ahmed said her license plate was stolen in the early 2000s while at the dealership for repairs. She reported it at the time. But a ticket in October triggered the agency computers to notify her that she's on the hook for tickets associated with the stolen plate.
Ahmed said now she needs to prove the plate was stolen before the agency will take her off the boot list.
"Now I have to worry, Is my car going to be there when I wake up in the morning?" Ahmed said. "Am I going to have a car to go to school, to get to work, to make money?"