Members of the Atlanta City Council representing Buckhead said they were surprised to hear the city failed to collect more than $200,000 (and growing) in electric scooter impound fines earlier this year and are doing what they can to require the city to collect the fees.
At the council’s transportation committee meeting Oct. 30 at City Hall, Atlanta Public Works Commissioner James A. Jackson Jr. reportedly said his department impounded 2,897 scooters between July 1 and Sept. 30 because they were improperly parked or possibly violated other regulations. But it failed to collect the fees for that period.
“I was simply astounded that this could even take place,” said District 9 Councilman Dustin Hillis, who chairs the council’s public safety and legal administration committee. “I mean, how were the companies even allowed to recover their scooters without paying the fine? I … (told Jackson), ‘If you or I went to try to recover out cars from the (Atlanta Police Department) impound lot without paying, we'd be laughed off the lot!'”
Email messages to Atlanta’s city planning and public works departments, which handle e-scooter permits and policy enforcement, seeking comment were not returned by the Neighbor’s deadline. The Neighbor also has learned from an industry source close to the situation that the amount the city failed to collect was actually over $500,000.
“Council was, as a group, startled and very discouraged. The members who voted for this surely had higher expectations,” said District 7 Councilman Howard Shook, who chairs the council’s finance/executive committee, referring to the more than $200,000 in fees not paid as originally reported.
According to information posted to its website, the city had 12,700 permitted e-scooters as of July 2. The city enacted its e-scooter ordinance in 2018, the year it also started issuing permits to e-scooter companies, with Bird being the first one to offer them. In January the council approved three amendments to its e-scooter ordinance.
The first two, which the council approved 14-0, dealt with several rider mandates, including that scooters must be ridden in the street and not on the sidewalk, and operating company requirements regarding where scooters could be parked and rider education.
The third, which passed 13-1, dealt with the Atlanta Police Department’s enforcement of the amended law, which includes a warning for first offenses and fines for second or more offenses. Shook abstained, saying at the time he voted against it because it’s unenforceable, both on the users’ side and on the companies’ side. In a Nov. 15 interview, Shook said he predicted an issue such as impound fees not being collected would happen.
“Not one council member I talked to said they thought it would work,” he said of the June amendments vote, adding the members he spoke to who voted yes did so for political reasons. “… When you start trying to develop an intricate, complicated policy, it becomes this (major) exercise and it becomes this challenge like putting together a large jigsaw puzzle. It’s all about getting the pieces to fit together.”
As for the solution to the impound problem, council members offered a few solutions.
Shook said one solution could be following San Francisco’s policy, a suggestion given to him by a resident who recently visited the city, in which e-scooters are placed in racks that send electronic signals to the scooter companies to let them know a user’s ride has ended so he or she isn’t charged extra fees on their credit card.
Hillis said the council “certainly did our job as the legislators of the city” but not everyone else in Atlanta’s government is doing its part.
“We enacted the law that set the impound fee at $75 for the first day and $25 for each additional day of storage,” he said. “The department tasked with executing the law has simply failed to do so, and that is highly unacceptable. Myself and multiple colleagues on the city utilities and transportation committees have demanded answers, only to be told the law department is ‘looking into it’ (recovering the fees due the city).”
Matzigkeit and Council President Felicia Moore said the city should continue to push to collect the fees, and Moore added the council could craft legislation to force the city’s hand. Matzigkeit said the city is still learning how to handle e-scooters in Atlanta, adding he would like to see the city charge companies for right-of-way access, which they currently get for free.
“I am pleased Atlanta has not had a knee-jerk reaction to banning them immediately,” Matzigkeit said. “We need to do have another shot at regulations and we are learning as we go here. We put in some regulations initially. We tightened those but we need to continue to. But I’m glad we’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We need to use technology to help solve our transportation problems. … It could potentially be part of a solution.”
Matzigkeit and the industry source both said e-scooter companies have had problems with the bills the city has sent them because they don’t properly document each violation. Shook said when each council member is given his or her 2020 committee assignments and committee chair positions in December, that could signal the start of some possible changes to impound fine enforcement.
Until then, he and Moore suggested the Neighbor interview Post 3 at-large Councilman Andre Dickens, who chairs the council’s transportation committee. Dickens did not return an email message seeking comment.
The city currently has seven e-scooter companies permitted to operate in Atlanta, though one, Lyft, earlier this month announced it is pulling out of the city Nov. 22. Atlanta put a temporary moratorium on e-scooter permits in August and in the coming months is expected to put out to bid requests for proposals for companies to get new permits.
The Neighbor polled each council member interviewed on the number of companies that should operate in the city and the city’s policy on warnings and fines e-scooter riders receive for violating the ordinance.
Regarding the number of companies operating in Atlanta, Shook said he’s in favor of the current plan, which allows each company to have up to 2,000 e-scooters in the city. But Hillis and Moore said they would like to see no more than three companies permitted in the city.
Matzigkeit said he couldn’t pick a number, adding he wants company competition to remain in the city but wants the total number of scooters managed better and possibly reduced.
“It’s really more about the number of scooters out there than the number of companies, but I do want a number of companies out there providing that service,” he said.
Regarding the city’s policy of warning e-scooter users on the first offense and fining them on the second or later offenses, Shook, Matzigkeit and Moore said they’re in favor of the current plan. They said some first offenders are tourists unaware of the rules.
“I don’t have a big problem with that, as long as they have a mechanism for ensuring people do get fined after they’re warned,” Moore said. “I don’t know if they get a warning ticket so they have their name on hand in case they get caught a second time.”
Hillis said the policy is too lenient, adding he hopes “officers are allowed to exercise discretion.”
“Being a tourist, whether in Atlanta or anywhere else, is no excuse for breaking the law,” Hillis said. “This law has been in place for many months now, and it needs to be more effectively enforced.”