Driver fee forgiveness a lifeline for some
Five years ago, Detroiter Sterling Dickerson’s driver’s license was suspended after he failed to pay off nearly $2,000 in Driver Responsibility Fees — a two-year tax the state levied on top of ticket fines — for his municipal driving infractions.
“I was able to pay off my tickets off, but those responsibility fees left me in a hole with the state treasury,” said Dickerson, 27. “It really was a big burden over the years trying to pay that amount.”
His debt to the state left Dickerson without a license, forcing him get rides from friends and family members to low-wage jobs, navigate the city’s spotty bus service to get to work or occasionally just break the law.
Since I first wrote a year ago about the 350,000 Michigan motorists owing some $637 million in unpaid Driver Responsibility Fees, I’ve heard countless similar stories from drivers across the state like Dickerson who were saddled with these fees that the Legislature and then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm imposed in 2003 to help balance the state’s budget.
Dickerson got his driver fees wiped away early after completing a 10-hour workforce training course. His license was restored in May, and it opened up a new opportunity to advance into a better job that pays more at the Octapharma Plasma donation center in Redford Township.
“I am driving legally now,” he told me. “Having my license has definitely made my life better.”
Dickerson was among 13,500 drivers who participated in a qualifying workforce training program since April to get their fees forgiven before the debt gets entirely wiped out on Oct. 1, according to the Michigan Department of Treasury.
As of late August, 1,566 Detroiters had gotten their fees forgiven through a workforce training program, said Robin Johnston, spokesman for the Detroit Employment Solutions Corp., the city’s workforce agency.
An additional 27,000 motorists statewide got their debt wiped away March 30 because they were in a payment plan prior to Feb. 1, according to Treasury.
About 305,000 drivers statewide will have their collective $572 million in debt forgiven next month when the amnesty program fully kicks in with the state’s 2019 fiscal year.
In this era of deep distrust of government and institutions, the state’s swift move to end this collection of uncollectible debt was a rare display of bipartisan cooperation.
The outstanding debt these drivers owed was first brought to my attention by Strategic Staffing Solutions CEO Cindy Pasky and Dave Meador, vice chairman of DTE Energy Co.
Pasky and Meador co-chair Mayor Mike Duggan’s workforce development board.
And one of Duggan’s tasks for that panel of corporate and union leaders is to identify and eliminate barriers to Detroiters getting employed. The high cost of auto insurance, poverty and the availability of mass transportation are the obvious barriers.
Pasky and Meador, along with the city’s workforce development director, Jeff Donofrio, went to work advocating for the Legislature to consider granting some relief of the fines, particularly for citizens who couldn’t get jobs they trained for in prison programs.
The Republican-controlled Legislature, as it turned out, had an appetite to put a final nail in the coffin of these Granholm-era fees that they started repealing five years ago.
As it turns out, this amnesty program could end up being just as relieving as any tax cut for these 350,000 adults, many of whom have been restrained in climbing the economic ladder without access to a vehicle.
Detroiter Ashley Griesert, 34, got a speeding ticket just after her 19th birthday. To make things worse, she had let her vehicle registration lapse, and she was driving without insurance.
Those driving infractions resulted in three Driver Responsibility Fees, which were levied for two consecutive years, totaling $1,800. Then came another $200 in late fees for the unpaid fines.
Griesert admits to being “young and dumb” and ignoring the collection bills that initially came.
“I didn’t know if you didn’t pay the ticket, that your license was going to be suspended,” she said.
Over the course of nearly 15 years, Griesert paid off $1,200 of the fines. But for most of her adult years, she has navigated life without a driver’s license, unable to scrape up enough money to pay off the debt.
“You were paying more for the Driver Responsibility Fee than you were for the actual ticket,” said Griesert, an associate producer for the substance abuse television show “Ask the Messengers” on WMYD-Channel 20.
Griesert recently had her Driver Responsibility Fees forgiven after completing the workforce training course.
Now, she’s just a $225 payment of an outstanding ticket and a driver’s test away from getting her license restored.
“Because it’s been so long, I have to take a driver’s test again,” she said. “But it will be worth it.”
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