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:

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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.”

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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 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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