Watchdog Nation says: Give ’em hell, Victor!

If you hate toll roads, this little story is for you.

Often, when government staff presents a proposal to elected or appointed boards of directors, approval is a slam dunk.

Perhaps that’s what the fellows at the North Texas Tollway Authority hoped when they stood before directors the other day and presented two proposals.tollways

The first was a staff decision to avoid addressing in a major way the  erosion of confidence many North Texans have about the NTTA’s inequitable and confusing toll collection policies.

Put simply: A $1 toll can escalate to $500 in fines, fees and other ridiculous costs.

The second proposal involved hiring a politically-connected law firm, Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson, to be the authority’s collection muscle.

Things didn’t work out as planned.

Here’s the way I told the story in the Dec. 11, 2009 Dave Lieber column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

# # #

At least there’s one representative on the North Texas Tollway Authority fighting for fairness in fees, fines and penalties.

Victor Vandergriff, an Arlington businessman who serves as the board’s vice chairman, gave top authority staffers a tongue-lashing this week.


Victor Vandergriff

Victor Vandergriff


Faced with public anger about a collection process that can turn a $1 toll fee into $500 in fines, penalties and other costs, the authority had postponed any public discussion of what to do about it until Monday’s finance committee meeting in Plano.

There, Vandergriff let it rip:

“I have significant concerns about the level of detail provided here today,” he said after hearing two staff reports on the collections process. “We’ve been waiting for this for months, and this is what we get?

“I’m not a happy camper. To be honest with you, your presentations were lacking in detail here.”

He complained that the authority’s staffers gave him copies of their report on fees and collections only a few days before the meeting. “I want to request getting information in a more timely manner,” he said.

He complained that even before that, staffers were slow to answer the “hue and cry” of the public about perceived inequities in collections procedures. “It’s taken us way too long to get before this body,” he said. “We need to avoid that in the future and do things more promptly.”

He complained that the authority’s budget may be too strongly based on collecting penalty fees.

“That budget, I believe, contains, as a serious component of it, [income from] administrative fines, fees and penalties. That puts pressure on this agency to basically balance this on the back” of the collection process. “That concerns me a great deal.”

Rather, he said, the budget should be based on “a reasonable and fair collection cost.”

The tollway authority staff conducted a survey of 21 tolling agencies and found that 15 assess roughly the same late fees and penalties, three were higher and three were lower.

Staffers concluded that the North Texas authority’s fee structure is fair.

Their proposal to the board? “Staff recommends formalizing the new invoice process.” Wow. That should make everyone happy.

Led by Vandergriff, the board decided not to go along with that. The problems are far more complex.

“I’d like to understand in writing precise collections costs,” he said testily.

Minutes later, staffers tried to get the board’s blessing on a second proposal — to hire as its outside collection agency the Austin-based law firm of Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson L.L.P.

Linebarger also does delinquent-tax collection for Arlington, Fort Worth and Tarrant County. It has offices in Texas and 12 other states.

The Star-Telegram has reported that Linebarger collects about $1 billion in delinquent taxes each year for more than 2,000 government entities, according to the firm.

But the firm has been accused of using unnecessary muscle to secure contracts.

In 2004, a former partner in the firm pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery in a scandal that also involved a former San Antonio councilman. Locally, a $2,000 Linebarger campaign contribution to then-Mayor Barton Scott prompted the Mansfield City Council to deem the donation inappropriate and fire the firm.

Vandergriff complained that it made no sense to hire a collections firm when the authority hasn’t figured out how to run its collection process.

“Pretty serious stuff,” he said of the proposed Linebarger hiring. Yet the only the information Vandergriff said he was given was “nine pages of PowerPoint, not a lot of data, and you’re asking us to approve this today? Is that what I’m understanding?”

“I don’t understand the logic to this,” he added.tollway 1

Pam Hicks of Arlington has complained to The Watchdog that a tollway authority customer service representative told her that if she didn’t pay $82, “I would be subject to arrest.”

She said this about Vandergriff: “I’m very glad that someone is standing up for what’s right. I don’t know how far he can hold them accountable, but at least he’s not letting them off the hook and saying they can continue to do business as they are.”

* * *

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. His book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, won two national book awards in 2009 for social change.

Watchdog Nation alert: State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, is collecting your stories, ideas and comments to help battle the authority’s policies. Her e-mail is Jane.Nelson@senate.state.tx.us. Her U.S. mail address is Senator Jane Nelson, P.O. Box 12086, Austin, TX 78711.


A closer look Number of invoices mailed for payment by the North Texas Tollway Authority:


2006: 500,000

2007: 1 million

2008: 2 million

2009: 3 million

Source: NTTA

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Comments

  1. Bill Norcutt says:

    The NTTA has been "screwing" so many people for so long that it doesn't matter what their "Review Committee does NOW!

    NTTA will be getting their own FINES soon.

    Even if they stopped their "draconian" late fees policy today, they have already charged so many people so much money that they are already going to get a taste of LEGAL PENALTIES that will look like a Financial Armageddon for the NTTA

    They think their enemy is the thousands of people WHO (run tolls) and who HAVE NOT PAID their fines——OH NO!—OH NO!

    The NTTA's "ENEMY" are the thousands and thousands of "honest"people who HAVE (Actually) PAID these FINES!!!!!

    A TASTE of their own Penalty FEES

    So many Honest, God Fearing Citizens have already "paid" so many Millions, and Millions of dollars in immoral and illegal fees, that the penalties the NTTA is facing (SOON) is going to make the money they have Charged in late fees look like "Chump change".

    HOW ABOUT 10,000 LAWSUITS!

    Once the people of this area—including out of state "payors" find out that they really do have a VALID LEGAL CLAIM—-The (NTTA) WILL BE HIT with so many individual, and class action lawsuits that the NTTA will find out what it really feels like to get their "NASTY NOTICES" in the mail.

    The standard punitive damage on a legal settlement is 3 to 21 times!

    If you are, or know of anyone who has paid several hundred dollars in NTTA FINES, imagine what a payday you/they might have coming.

    Dang!!! I sure wish I was an attorney!

    Bill Norcutt

    dollarbillsdallas@tx.rr.com

  2. Joe McHaney says:

    This has taken way too long to get right. NTTA I hope is heading in the right direction. Victor as I remember him from school will fight for whats right. The collection process is a joke right now and the fees and fines are crazy stupid. No one should charge more than $ 10.00 for a late toll fee payment. When someone sees a fine added to a .60 toll of $30.00 bucks that bill goes in the trash and the person is not going to bother to pay it. Fairness please….

  3. concerened citizen says:

    One way to fight back is to bog them down with public information requests
    http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/GV/htm/GV.552.htm
    page at a time. If 10,000 people sent a request for a copy of each letter they supposedly sent ( we all know they dont sent out what they say we do), it would cost them plenty.

  4. Yeah, it would cost them plenty, but it would also be a waste of time for everybody. I am one of the biggest believers in the power of the Open Records Act. People don't use it nearly enough. But there is so much important data available to the public – letters, memos, tapes, etc. – that I couldn't imagine why you would "prank" them for annoyance when you really have the keys to the kingdom and can learn everything about your government.