Thursday, February 5, 2009

For Whom the Toll Bells - The North Texas Tollway Authority exacts a stiff price for those who drive willy-nilly on its highways

By Jim Schutze - Dallas Observer - January 14, 2009

Certain things you can do that might turn out very badly for you. Borrowing money from the Mafia, for example. Posing naked for a photographer who is a stranger.

The only sure way to avoid getting one of the tollway authority's trick bills for several hundred dollars is to have a lawyer ride with you.-MORREY TAYLOR

But who worries about driving down a toll road? I can tell you who should: You!

Over the last several years I have received numerous phone calls, letters and e-mails from people complaining that they have been hit with huge, totally unexpected bills for unpaid tolls and associated fines.

For a long time, I brushed these aside. I thought, "Well, you know, people should pay their tolls."

But most of the people calling me don't sound like folks who regularly skip on restaurant tabs or jump over turnstiles. I made up my mind a few weeks ago that the next time I got one of these complaints, I would stop whatever I was doing and take a look. I didn't have long to wait. On a Monday morning I found a phone message from Rick Johns, a probation officer in Tarrant County.

Johns had just received a bill from the North Texas Tollway Authority for $337 for four trips on the President George Bush Turnpike, which runs from near the D/FW Airport east to the vicinity of Rowlett on Lake Ray Hubbard.

For the first trip, which he made a year and a half ago, he was charged at a rate of $3 in tolls and $100 in "administrative fees." The second trip, made about a year ago, was billed at $3 in tolls and $75 in fees. Another cruise down the PGBT the following day cost him $2 in tolls and 50 bucks in fees.

The most recent trip, his most expensive, was made last May and billed at $4 in tolls and $100 in fees.

According to Johns, this statement was the first notification of any kind telling him he owed the NTTA money. His claim—that this was a first notice—was backed up by the notice itself, of which he gave me a copy, and by the NTTA's own description of its billing practices when I called them. The NTTA didn't comment on Johns' case specifically.

Before I even venture into the question of the billing practices, let's you and I see if we can figure out how a normal, law-abiding citizen—a parole officer in this case—gets behind the eight-ball to the tune of three C-notes in unpaid toll road fees.

Johns drives to the Dallas side of the metropolitan area for his son's baseball games. He used to drive on the State Highway 121 tollway between Coppell and Lewisville.

There are no tollbooths on 121. Therefore it is not possible to pay your tolls as you go. Cameras along the way take pictures of you as you pass. If you do not have an electronic TollTag on your windshield connected to a credit card, the NTTA bills you by mail for the amount of your tolls.

Johns didn't have a Dallas-area TollTag. Didn't want one. Was happy to pay by mail. Did so. He even thought mistakenly that he was paying a little extra and didn't mind.

"I was under the impression that the toll may have been even 25 cents higher per toll by not stopping and paying, and I didn't have a problem with that."

He says he paid those bills when he got them. Never had a problem. So where did he do wrong? He started driving on another NTTA toll road—the President George Bush Turnpike. There, the rules are different.

As explained to me by NTTA spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt, the difference is that the PGBT does have tollbooths, while the 121 tollway does not. Coffelt said that wherever there are tollbooths, a motorist who does not have a TollTag must stop and pay cash. Where there are no tollbooths, a motorist does not have to stop and pay cash.

When a motorist is not required to stop and pay cash, he will be billed for the amount of his toll only. When he is required to stop and pay cash but does not, he's a toll jumper. He will be billed for the amount of his toll plus a $25 penalty called an "administrative fee."

No signs along the road warn motorists of this difference. Coffelt told me it's the motorist's obligation to know the rules.

Each skipped toll station incurs a new $25 administrative fee. On his jaunt down the PGBT last May, Johns passed by four toll stations, each one of which took a picture of his license plate and billed him for a $1 toll plus a $25 administrative fee. So four times $26 amounted to a bill for $104, a tab he racked up for 33 minutes of driving.

But wait. We're not done with the different rules on how to pay your toll. There is a third rule. On the Dallas North Tollway, you can pay cash, so if you don't have a TollTag you must pay cash, and if you don't pay cash you'll be billed for the tolls plus the $25 fees. But you can't pay cash.

Say what?

The Dallas North Tollway is a road where you can pay cash, so you have to pay cash, but if you enter the Dallas North Tollway at the main plaza at Wycliff close to downtown, you will notice that you can't pay cash. There are no tollbooths at Wycliff.
Coffelt explained to me that the absence of cash-taking booths at the main entrance to the Dallas North Tollway is just kind of an exception. The Dallas North Tollway is definitely a must-pay-cash toll road except when you get on it, when it is a can't-pay-cash toll road. But that doesn't last; later down the road you have to pay cash.

Maybe you better take notes.

If you enter at Wycliff and you don't have a TollTag and you don't pay cash because you can't pay cash, you will be billed only for the amount of your tolls. Maybe.

If you keep driving, and maybe you think this is a road where you don't have to pay cash because that's what it was when you got on, but you pass another toll plaza farther north at say, Keller-Springs Road where you can pay cash, but you decide not to pay cash because you have been lulled into thinking you don't have to pay cash, this is what you must do next:

Pull over to the shoulder immediately.

Exit the vehicle.

Put your head between your legs.

Kiss your ass good-bye.

You have just become a son-of-a-bitch, toll-jumping, miscreant fool, and you are about to feel the full weight of the law on your no-good, crime-prone head.

Well, you might think, maybe I make that mistake one time. They let me know. I take my medicine, pay my toll plus my 25 bucks. Man, I'll sure never make that mistake again!

Not so fast, Kemo Sabe. In Johns' case, for example, he had no idea he was doing anything wrong until he was on the tab for $337. He told me he certainly would have figured out a smarter way to behave had he known what was going on at the get-go.

"I get on George Bush, which I assume is the same deal as 121, and obviously if I had known this—a $25 administrative fee per tollbooth—I mean, good grief, I would have made other arrangements."

I asked Coffelt why people don't get billed or notified right away, the first time they hit the buzzer, so that they won't keep making the same mistake. She said the NTTA wants to spare people the annoyance of being billed every time they have a two-bit toll.

"We're not sending out a 40-cent bill, and then you end up paying 42 cents for postage, because what person would want to write a check for 40 cents. So we save up a couple of transactions."

I said I understood about the normal tolls, but did the agency try to let people know the first time they made a mistake and racked up a $25 administrative fee? She said no. They save up those too.

"We will save it, and you may get two, three transactions with $25 fees on it, so yes, we do save those."

Problem. Johns, indeed, had only four toll road trips on his first bill. But those trips took place over an 18-month period. And because the system hits him with a separate $25 fee every time he ticks past another camera, his total administrative fees for those four trips came to $325. The first trip alone, a year and a half ago, cost him $100 in fees.

They couldn't have given him a heads-up a year and a half ago?

I asked Coffelt how much the agency collects in administrative fees and fines. Apparently that is a really tough question to answer. She said she would have to get back to me.

I did not hear from her before the deadline for this story, but I did the best I could on my own. I looked online at the NTTA's annual financial statements.

According to the NTTA's 2007 financial statement, it collected $4.4 million that year in administrative fees "for collection of tolls from toll violators [the bastards]," representing 2.1 percent of its total income.

Note to reader: I added "the bastards."

What I found more interesting was this: Between 2001 and 2007, the agency's toll revenues grew by 89 percent. In that same period, its revenues for "administrative fees, parking transaction fees, statement fees and miscellaneous charges" grew by 356 percent.

So I guess if you are the bright person at the NTTA in charge of squeezing money out of people with non-toll fees, right about now you've got a big gold star over your name.

While they're at it, the NTTA should set up a special tollbooth just for people who get really behind on their administrative fees. Deadbeats would be required to park their cars and come inside.

There should be some old pinball machines in there and a couple guys in zoot suits smoking cigars, one of them cleaning his fingernails with a switchblade. They might say something like, "Pal, you gotta lotta administrative fees youse owes us. We'd like to settle this peaceful."

They might as well be honest about the type of operation they're running.

Read More in the Dallas Observer

Monday, February 2, 2009

For some Dallas-area legislators, donations fund the good life

By EMILY RAMSHAW and MARCUS FUNK - The Dallas Morning News - Sunday, February 1, 2009

Read more

AUSTIN – Luxury car payments and private airplanes. Five-star hotels and exotic resort stays. Upscale condos, gym memberships and maid service.

They're just some of the ways North Texas lawmakers spend their campaign donations.

Some of this money, which is designed to fund runs for office, comes from individual supporters; the rest comes from special interest groups that have a stake in legislation. But Texas lawmakers are permitted to use the contributions for other expenses associated with holding elected office.

What qualifies is often subject to debate. A Dallas Morning News review of two years' worth of North Texas elected officials' spending habits shows their expenditures run the gamut from bare-bones to lavish, largely depending on how much they raise.

North Texas lawmakers say their spending is justified because of the personal and professional sacrifices they make to hold office. Lawmakers are paid $600 a month, plus a $128 personal allowance every day they're in session,

"It's a very expensive obligation – we have to live in Austin, we have to travel throughout our districts," said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who has used her contributions to fund car lease payments to Mercedes Benz and conference stays at the Ritz Carlton Palm Beach, the Venetian in Las Vegas, a Puerto Rican resort and the Hay-Adams, a luxury hotel in Washington, D.C.

"Otherwise, the only people who could afford to be elected would be the wealthiest of the wealthy."

Critics: slush funds

But watchdogs say the campaign accounts have effectively become lawmaker slush funds, where special interest groups can give unlimited contributions to augment elected officials' lifestyles. In the last two years, 34 percent of North Texas lawmakers' total spending – roughly $3.4 million out of nearly $10 million total – has gone to fund things beyond traditional campaigns, according to The News' analysis.

In a review two years ago that included only Dallas-area lawmakers, The News found that nearly half of their spending went to noncampaign expenditures.

"They're using the lobby's money to enhance their lifestyles, a perk that is technically legal but a clear conflict of interest," said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, which tracks the influence of money in state politics. "There ought to be a better wall between campaign contributions and what appear to be personal expenditures."

Combined, 36 North Texas lawmakers have spent nearly $560,000 on travel and entertainment, $470,000 on Austin living expenses and $290,000 on food since 2007. The bulk of their noncampaign spending – just over $2 million – was on charitable donations, gifts and campaign contributions, many of them to one another.

It's common for officials at all levels who don't face serious competition for re-election to donate to colleagues, often to help a fellow party member or to try to secure future support from them.

Of the five highest North Texas spenders, three are senators and two are House members, and all but one is Republican. Only one had a highly competitive race in the last election, which could have required unusually high expenditures.

Of the five lowest-spending North Texas lawmakers, three are Republicans and two are Democrats. All are House members.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, spent more than $1 million in the last two years, more than any other North Texas lawmaker. The Senate transportation chairman's campaign reimbursed his property-management company nearly $62,000 for using the company's corporate jet for travel between Austin and Dallas – and other states where his firm has offices.

"The only expenses that we charge to the campaign are related to my service here in office," Carona said.

Carona's airplane costs were second only to Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, who spent nearly $95,000 on fuel and fees for a prop plane he leases. Estes, whose district includes parts of Denton and Collin counties, said that ground travel from his district to Austin is time-consuming and that the lack of direct flights means flying commercial is as tedious as driving.

"I'm a little envious of my colleagues in Amarillo and El Paso, since Southwest flies there straight from Austin every day," he said

Questions have been raised about lawmakers' use of private airplanes in the past. Between 1996 and 2004, the Texas Republican Party repeatedly attacked former Democratic House Speaker Pete Laney for using campaign funds to pay for his own airplane, once filing a Texas Ethics Commission complaint against him. Laney, whose district was in West Texas, was never cited for it.

Hans Klingler, spokesman for the state Republican Party, said if the ethics commission is OK with it, the party is, too.

"We always hope they put taxpayer interests first, and it sounds like both of these people, along with Speaker Laney, did that," said Klingler, who did not work for the party then.

Common practice

Using campaign funds to pay for other expenses is a common practice across the country, though the level varies from state to state, said Nick Nyhart, president of the nonprofit group Public Campaigns, which works to reduce the role of special interest money in politics.

In some states, lawmakers use the funds to sponsor Little League teams and community events. In the most severe cases, Nyhart said, lawmakers have used the campaign accounts to get around gift-giving rules and other ethics laws.

"The money can help purchase you a lifestyle above and beyond what you can afford were you not a lawmaker," Nyhart said.

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, and Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, were two of the most generous donors – contributing $343,000 and $165,000, respectively, to the campaigns of their colleagues and to charitable causes across North Texas.

Branch attributed most of his spending – which totaled nearly $800,000 over the last two years – to having a Democratic challenger for his seat that "we took really seriously." But he argued that because of relatively low pay, it's appropriate for them to use their officeholder accounts for business purposes.

"There are a lot of sacrifices being made to be here," Branch said. "That said, there are laws set out for what's appropriate. Each member needs to be thoughtful about what these appropriate uses are."

For Sen. Chris Harris, R-Fort Worth, these uses include spending more than $15,000 on rental apartments for himself and his staff in Austin, and using campaign funds to cover his renters and auto insurance, his Sirius satellite radio and his maid service. He put a $12,000 down payment on a car at Park Place Lexus, then made more than $8,500 in lease payments.

In addition to car payments and luxury hotel stays totaling more than $13,000, Shapiro spent nearly $10,000 on Austin apartment rent, plus more than $2,000 on DirecTV and home cleaning services. Shapiro says she pays for half of her expenses out of pocket and funds the other half with her campaign account.

"The people who give us money recognize what it's going for and know that we're citizen legislators," she said.

Among other lawmakers' expenditures:

•Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, spent more than $20,000 on rent for his Austin apartment, plus more than $4,500 on cable TV and cleaning service.

•Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, was the top-spending Democrat, using campaign funds to make nearly $16,000 in car payments.

•Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, spent nearly $15,000 on Austin living expenses, including rental furniture, TV repairs, insurance, carpet cleaning and a gym membership.

•Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, spent more than $27,000 on car lease payments, auto insurance and repairs. He also spent nearly $18,000 on hotel stays. He said logistics getting to and from Austin, as well as travel within his own district, make up the bulk of his noncampaign-related expenses.

"If anybody thinks I'm making money out of this, they can call my
accountant," said Deuell, a physician. "I lose a lot of money every year
as a senator, as do a lot of other folks."

The Dallas Morning News surveyed campaign finance records from 36 lawmakers in Dallas, Tarrant, Rockwall, Denton, Collin and Ellis counties to measure campaign-related and noncampaign-related spending over the last two years. The study classified anything related to pursuing or supplying an office as "campaign spending" – everything from campaign mailers to office fax machines. All other expenses were divided into four categories: food, often for meetings; travel and
entertainment, including gasoline charges; gifts and political contributions, including donations to colleagues and local civic groups; and Austin living expenses, including apartment rent and utilities. The six North Texas lawmakers elected for the first time in 2008 had very few noncampaign expenses and were excluded from this survey.

Also Online:

Lawmaker living expenditures (.pdf)

Lawmaker gifts, donations and dues expenditures (.pdf)

Lawmaker travel and entertainment expenditures (.pdf)

Lawmaker food expenditures (.pdf)

Texas Ethics Commission


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