Not long ago, property manager Rosemary Paparo ran into trouble with a sanitation violation when an error on a handwritten ticket sent the violation to the wrong address. Instead of a $25 citation, Paparo says a co-op she managed was socked with a $300 default penalty. So, Paparo is cheering the news that the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) is starting to use handheld computers and portable printers that are designed to create violations with fewer errors.
“Maybe with this system, we’ll get it in a timely manner and then we can pay it,” says Paparo, director of management at Buchbinder & Warren, which represents about 5,000 units in 100 buildings.
DSNY started the program eight months ago and now about 85 rugged handheld devices are being used by agents in Manhattan. The end-of-the-year goal is to have about 250 used every day throughout the city.
The news can seem grim for boards worried about sanitation violations: using the computers allows agents to issue more violations and to issue citations with fewer of the kind of errors that have gotten them thrown out of court in the past. “This makes sanitation officers more efficient and more productive in their work,” says Lauren Olin, regional manager for government solutions with Intermec, which sold the $4 million project to the city.
But despite that, Paparo is not the only one to see a silver lining. “For a large, well-run building this is not going to be a negative,” says Amita Rodman, a former board member who is still very active at her 250-unit West Village co-op. Explaining her optimism, Rodman makes another point: in the past, her cooperative ran into difficulties with building-code violations, such as the time a rental tenant complained that permits were not properly posted and the building was cited.
“They were posted,” Rodman says, noting that they fought the citation and won. “But the complaint stayed on as though it was uncured.” Tracking down the handwritten documents was tedious, she says. If a similar situation arose for sanitation violations, a computer system would hopefully eliminate the hunt for paperwork. “It will be easier to go back and say that we did fix it.”
From July 2006 to December 2006, DSNY issued 185,009 sanitation violations. That’s about 20,000 more tickets than were issued in the same period in 2005. Nonetheless, DSNY spokesman Matthew LiPani attributed the rise not to the computers but to more agents at work in the field.
Citations written by hand often have inaccurate or illegible information, whether it is the type of violation or an incorrect name or address, says head DSNY spokesman Steve Stam. Those mistakes make it easier for citations to be thrown out if they are appealed to the Environmental Control Board (ECB), the body that hears challenges to sanitation citations. Agents who still write violations by hand have more difficulty trying to track multiple violations and learn of repeat violators by leafing through large paper booklets with adjudications. With the computers, that data is automatically available. Agents plug them into chargers at the end of a shift, and the information is automatically processed by a central server, identifying owners and alternative addresses where a summons can be sent by mail.
The ECB is not tracking how many challenged violations were generated by computer or by hand, says Mike Moran, deputy director at the agency. In general, about half of DSNY’s citations wind up before the ECB. When it comes to errors on tickets, a mistake like an incorrect address can be a defense, Moran says. Errors such as transposed letters or incomplete information on a violation probably would be a defense, he says. Moran would not estimate how many tickets are dismissed.
Fighting a computer-generated ticket is no different than fighting a handwritten one: a complainant presents his case to a hearing officer. If he wants to appeal that ruling, he can request a review by the full ECB board. Moran says it’s too soon to say whether the computer citations are thrown out any less often than handwritten ones. Of the 400,000 violations filed each year about half wind up before the ECB.
Illegibility alone is not always enough to toss a ticket. Instead, credibility is one of the key factors in getting any citation dismissed, Moran says, using the example of a dirty-sidewalk violation. “The person can say, ‘I sweep it three times a day,’ and prove it to the [hearing officer].” A ticket that is easier to read also benefits the violator. “When it’s easier for them to read, it’s easier for them to make their defense,” or decide whether to contest it at all, Moran says.
Another reason the DSNY implemented the new computer system was to better track repeat violators, who are subject to stiffer fines, Stam says. The computers can also access an address database of 1.1 million properties, culled from a variety of city sources.
The handwritten system is more time-consuming and labor-intensive than the computers because after writing the citation, agents must key data into a computer so it can be microfiched. The agents who were doing that work can now be on the street, issuing more citations. “The value to the city is in reducing data entry and data management costs, being able to issue more consistently higher quality and higher-value summonses,” says Stam.
Intermec reports that the DSNY is the first government agency to use the devices for sanitation violations. Similar systems are being used here and in other cities for other types of infractions, such as those for building codes and parking tickets.
But just because the violations are computerized, management companies and board members should not be “running scared.” Glen Bolofsky, the founder of www.parkingticket.com, a website that helps people fight parking tickets, says he knows all about contesting computerized violations: “We’ve lived through this, we’ve survived it, and we’ve overcome it. They’re bullies with computers and they’re just trying to push people around and write these minor infractions.”
Bolofsky says he sees errors in about half of the computerized parking tickets, noting that people are often more likely to type something incorrectly than to make a mistake in writing. “You’ve got keystroke errors; you’ve got errors in moving from one field to the next.”
Condo/co-op lawyer Anthony Vassallo agrees. “I don’t see how this is going to eliminate mistakes,” says Vassallo, who represents three co-op boards and one condo association in Brooklyn and who is a member of the New York City Bar Association’s Cooperative and Condominium Association. “Someone still has to enter the information.”
Vassallo notes that he has not encountered any computer violations yet. He says boards might want to notify residents about the new computers so they can be extra careful about sanitation issues. “It may be a good time to clarify the rules.”
Bolofsky reports that the city has been using some form of computer system to write parking violations since the 1980s, and the number of tickets rises with each upgrade. Nicholas LaPorte, executive director of Associated Builders and Owners of Greater New York, hasn’t heard complaints about computerized citations from his members, roughly 1,000 residential and commercial property owners. But he has no doubt the number of citations will go up once the computers are widely used. Buildings that have been targeted unfairly will get hit hardest, he predicts, adding: “What this will do is exacerbate the problem for them.”
But despite the specter of more violations or citations that are supposedly “bulletproof,” many say they’re not worried. “The well-run establishments are not going to be the ones that will be affected one way or another,” says Jennifer Leuba, president of the cooperative board at the 36-unit Collect Pond House in Tribeca. “Our superintendent is on top of what needs to be done sanitation-wise.”
Maria Summers, who is on the board of her 16-unit co-op building in lower Manhattan, says a few more $25 citations for trash violations will not push her property to court. “The building is not going to fight it – it’s not worth their time and expense,” Summers says. Furthermore, she didn’t think the prospect of more tickets would make residents any more diligent about their trash. “At the end of the day, we’ve never had a maintenance increase because of recycling [fines].”
Peter Lehr, director of management for Kaled Management Corporation, is also unruffled. “I don’t think we’ll get overly taxed by it,” says Lehr. The company manages about 55 properties with about 6,000 total units in Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. “At $25 a clip, it’s not even worth challenging it.”