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Ticket off

Montgomery County, Md., acknowledges making a mistake in billing a dead man for a parking violation.

Montgomery County, Md., acknowledges making a mistake in billing a dead man for a parking violation.

May 06, 2006|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

For 2 1/2 months, Montgomery County, Md., tried to collect a 2006 parking ticket fine from George McAllister, who lived near Funkstown until he died in 2001.

All along, Vera McAllister, George's widow, knew the county was mistaken.

George wouldn't have been driving a Mercedes, as the notice alleged, and he certainly didn't park illegally on Hampden Lane in Bethesda on Jan. 17, 2006.

Although the license plate number on the ticket once was his, he canceled it in 1988.

Vera McAllister, who lives on Beaver Creek Road, promptly protested each notice of the fine. She sent back a copy of her husband's death certificate and proof he turned in his license plates.

Still, her attempts were fruitless.

The first overdue notice, for a $35 fine and $25 penalty, came in February.

A second notice, saying the total had risen from $60 to $85, came in March.

A third notice arrived Monday and showed that the total still was $85, but the ticket had been turned over to a collection agency ? which wasn't quite true.

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On Friday, Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, through a spokesman, apologized for the mess.

"This was a completely inexcusable and unacceptable mistake on the part of Montgomery County ..." Duncan spokesman David Weaver said. "Mrs. McAllister deserves and will receive an apology."

Weaver said the ticket was wiped out of the system on Monday, and Vera McAllister will be notified of that.

On Friday afternoon, though, she still hadn't received the letter and still was skeptical.

Duncan is running against Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley this year for the Democratic nomination for governor. Vera McAllister likes the life-size cutout of President George W. Bush, a Republican, in her living room.

On Friday, Duncan also ordered the county's collection agency ? LDC Collection Systems in Washington, D.C. ? to halt a misleading pressure tactic it has used on Vera McAllister and others.

LDC ? which handles at least 200,000 parking tickets a year for Montgomery County through a contract, Weaver said ? sent the first two letters to George McAllister as if they had come from the county's Parking Citation Services.

The third letter was identical to the second one, except for the letterhead, which had been changed, in large red letters, to LDC Collection Systems.

Esther Bowring, a public information officer for the county, said this is a method of "impressing upon people" that they have to pay their fines.

"This particular ticket was not sent to a collection agency," she said at first. But, she later said the ticket was with a collection agency the whole time.

The Herald-Mail asked Weaver what Duncan thought of pretending to switch a case from the county to a collection agency to pressure the public.

After consulting with Duncan, Weaver said the county executive has ordered an immediate end to the practice.

"Doug does not approve of these tactics," he said.

This week, Vera McAllister said the ticket battle has been unsettling, but the collection notice didn't worry her ? "unless I have to throw them off the front porch."

If someone shows up, "I'll tell them to go to Rose Hill Cemetery and collect it," she said, referring to where her husband is buried.

"I'm just to the point where I'm going to quit and let 'em do whatever they have to," she said Wednesday. "I'm tired. I'm tired of 'em."

At first, the mix-up simply was peculiar.

When the first notice came on Feb. 8, "I told my son, 'Your daddy's alive and running around down in Montgomery County,'" she recalled.

The notice said the Mercedes that was ticketed had license plate 750393.

George McAllister had that number on his Ford pickup truck, but canceled the registration in 1988, Motor Vehicle Administration spokesman Buel Young said. He noted that MVA doesn't reissue license plate numbers when they're turned in.

Although Henry Fox of LDC Collection Services blamed the MVA, saying it still listed George McAllister's address for that license plate number, Weaver said the county must own up to its mistake.

"We just screwed up," Bowring said. "We totally screwed up."

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