City of Toronto, collection agencies chasing down nearly $600M in unpaid tickets

The City of Toronto has contracted a team of debt collection agencies to track down over $500 million as it struggles to deal with a budget hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of the start of July, the city estimates it’s owed $580 million in unpaid tickets.

“That cumulative total goes back for years,” said Susan Garossino, the director of court services for Toronto.

The tickets are for offences ranging from traffic violations to public intoxication. They also include larger fines given to employers under the Employment Safety Act. In 2019, $19 million worth of unpaid tickets had a price tag over $500.  

According to Garossino, third-party collection agencies have long been part of Toronto’s collection arsenal. However, it’s only recently they engaged with specialty collectors to go after a particular type of fine.

“They go after fines that are 20-plus years old,” Garossino said.

“That represents about $100 million of the outstanding fees.” 

‘They’re catching up to people’

Mark Breslow, a paralegal who specializes in fighting traffic tickets, says he’s seen all kinds of cases centred around unpaid fines. In many situations, he said, it can be very difficult for the city to collect.

“Some of [the people] may have died in the meantime, some of them may have moved out of province, out of country, so you’ll never see that money,” he said.

“But they’re catching up to people, that’s why people are calling me.”

Breslow said the number of people contacting him has tripled in the last year. Many don’t even realize they owe money until they’re pulled over, or it’s time to renew their driver’s licence.

In some cases, drivers have even been able to renew their licence without problems, but are now faced with a bill. 

“The city has gone back to collect those old, ancient debts,” Breslow said. 

Revenues rising

The amount of ticket debt held by the collectors in 2016 and 2017 was around $325 million. More than $100 million in new fines were added to their portfolio in 2018, and then again in 2019. 

As more fines are moved over to collection agencies, the city is slowly chipping away at it’s mountain of overdue tickets. Opposing an upward trend from the years prior, the total amount owed to the city dropped from $599 million in 2018 to $593 million in 2019. During the same time period revenues from third party collectors more than doubled, hitting $18 million. 

The increases come as the city struggles to deal with what will likely be a $1.35 billion deficit due to the pandemic, although the provincial and federal governments have recently provided the city with hundreds of millions to keep transit and other operations running.

Garossino said the city is also looking at other ways to collect.

“Just because something has gone to a collection agency, it doesn’t mean that we also don’t take other enforcement against it,” she said.

For example, fines could be added to Torontonians’ municipal tax roll. Also, agreements with other governments mean those who get a ticket in Toronto, but live elsewhere, won’t necessarily get off scot-free.

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