11/09/2011 01:55 EST | Updated 01/09/2012 05:12 EST

Ontario Unpaid Traffic Fines At $1 Billion; Police Want Tougher Penalties

TORONTO - Police service boards want the Ontario government to consider seizing cars and federal tax returns to help collect some of the $1 billion in unpaid fines for provincial offences.

The Ontario Association of Police Service Boards released a report Wednesday showing there were 2.5 million unpaid fines as of July 2010 — for everything from traffic offences to trespassing — money the boards said could be used by hard-pressed municipalities.

"Our estimate is that the collectible amount is in the hundreds of millions of dollars," said Alok Mukherjee, president of the association.

"In 2009 alone, for just that one year, Toronto was owed $40 million and the small community of Stormont-Dundas-Glengarry was owed $8 million. That’s a large sum of money for a small community like that."

More than 90 per cent of the unpaid fines were levied against residents of Ontario, and "contrary to popular belief" were not people from other jurisdictions, said Mukherjee.

"These are not fines owed by people who drove in from the United States or other provinces and left without paying them," he said.

One third of the unpaid fines are for driving without insurance, another third for speeding and other Highway Traffic Act offences, while the rest stem from violating liquor laws, the Occupational Health and Safety Act or the Trespass to Property Act.

The police boards want people to be denied their vehicle licence plate renewal sticker if they have any outstanding fines, even ones for non-driving offences, saying that gives the "best bang for the buck" because police can easily spot an offender.

"A cop doesn’t have to wait for an infraction to stop that person (because) they can stop them by seeing that the plate is out of date," said association executive director Fred Kaustinen.

"If we could link that to a bunch of offences — it’s already linked to not paying your Highway 407 bill to a private company — certainly we could do that enforcement tool for a whole range of serious public safety infractions."

The police boards are recommending a "carrot and stick" approach to convince more people to pay their fines.

They want to offer discounts for those who pay early, but they also want the province to consider seizing vehicles of repeat offenders, especially those who drive without insurance.

Alberta and Nova Scotia have negotiated with Ottawa to have the power to garnish income tax returns, HST rebates and other federal payments for non-payments of provincial fines, and the police boards want Ontario to strike the same deal.

The problem of the unpaid fines started growing "exponentially" in the last 1990s, said Mukherjee, after the province turned over responsibility for collecting the money to municipalities.

"Which leads us to the conclusion that either the municipalities are not doing an effective job or do not have the tools to do an effective job of collecting these fines," he said.

One of the key problems is the provincial databases don't communicate with each other, and the municipalities that collect the fines can't access the province's databases.

"The licence plate registration database and the driver’s licence registration database are not linked, and they’re not linked to the Provincial Offences Act database," said Kaustinen.

"Additionally they’re not accessible by the people collecting the fines which are at the municipal level, so that’s part of the problem."

Premier Dalton McGuinty said cash-strapped governments at all levels are facing very slow growth for the next five or six years and will need every cent they can get their hands on.

"It’s going to be very important that we look for ways to ensure that any money that is owing to us is in fact being paid," said McGuinty.

The Progressive Conservatives said they included a promise to help municipalities collect unpaid fines in their campaign platform because they know how serious the problem is, and accused the Liberals of bad management.

"It shouldn’t come to the point where police boards are screaming at you for the money," said PC critic Jim Wilson.

The New Democrats too said the province should be doing a much better job of making sure the fines are paid.

"This is a problem the government’s known about for some time but hasn’t taken action on," said New Democrat MPP Jonah Schein.

"We need to make sure that we have the revenue that we need to pay for vital social services."