January 16, 2009
Geri Joyce Killarney
By Andrew Ryan, Globe Staff
The black-and-white thumbnails can be grainy, but the city hopes that the pictures of ice-crusted, snow-packed sidewalks send a clear message: Weaseling out of a $50 fine for not shoveling has gotten a lot harder.
Code inspectors have taken to the streets this winter with a new weapon, palm-size computers with touch screens that snap photographs of treacherous patches of ice, snow, and slush. Thumbnail images are stamped on tickets and printed instantly with a wireless 32-ounce printer slung over an officer's shoulder like a purse.
Officials hope the immediacy of the photographs will act as a deterrent, reducing the number of slick sidewalks that twist ankles, flare tempers, and force some pedestrians to walk in the street, which can be dangerous. When property owners find a green envelope for a code violation stuffed under their doors, they are staring at evidence they will have to explain if they plan to appeal.
"You'd better have a real good story now," said Michael B. Mackan, chief of inspectional services, which by yesterday afternoon had issued some 350 snow removal violations since Jan. 1. "Before they would have their own photos they took after they shoveled. Now the evidence is right there. It's a little harder to get out of it."
When violators appeal, the heavy artillery comes out in housing court. Those black-and-white photos on the tickets are reprinted as 8-by-10-inch color images with time stamps that are hard to dispute. Officials say it is a vast improvement from the clunky Polaroids once used as evidence with the old handwritten tickets.
"The real-time pictures are certainly a lot more persuasive than the older pictures they used to take," said Clerk Magistrate Robert L. Lewis of Boston Housing Court, which processes more than 4,000 appeals for code violations each year.
All code enforcement officers began carrying the handheld computers in September, slipping the 6-by-3-inch devices into their pockets. Inspectors now photograph all code violations - illegal dumping, excess yard debris, littering - but have found that the computers are particularly helpful in winter. They no longer have to strip off gloves to issue a ticket, and the days of sucking on pen tips to keep ink flowing are history.
"My stylus doesn't freeze," said Officer Pat McDonagh, using the plastic pen-like pointer this week to tap out a ticket for an unshoveled walk on Sachem Street in Mission Hill.
The tool went into use as inspectors are enforcing new shoveling regulations that went into effect in 2007 and tripled fines. Buildings with six or fewer units must pay $50 instead of $15, and the penalty for commercial properties jumped to $150 from $50.
All property owners are also now required to clear a 42-inch path through the ice and snow on all sidewalks, making a space wide enough for a wheelchair or a baby stroller. The old ordinance required a good faith effort to remove the snow. "Which means you could have just thrown down some sand and not even bothered to shovel," Mackan said.
The city has the authority to collect fines on traffic or speeding tickets, but little real power to collect the shoveling fines. That is why Beacon Hill lawmakers are also close to giving cities and towns the authority to add unpaid fines to property tax bills and, for the worst offenders, to file liens. The bill was championed by Representative Martha M. Walz, a Democrat from the Back Bay, and is on the governor's desk waiting to be signed into law.
Boston paid $1,900 for each of the handheld computers, and $700 for each printer. Officials say the devices will more than pay for themselves by dramatically streamlining data entry and reducing clerical errors. Information from the written tickets had to be entered by hand; data from the portable computers simply are uploaded at the end of each shift. And each unit comes loaded with assessment records and other data to help identify property owners. In the street, however, reaction has been mixed.
"I do like the picture because then I can actually see what they are talking about," said Becky Long, who manages apartments for Greater Boston Properties, which oversees 125 properties. "This way I can follow up on my end."
To Dan O'Neill, however, the photograph at the bottom of his $50 ticket looked like a Rorschach test ink blob. He cleared his walk the afternoon of New Year's Eve, and even though it snowed more that night, clean pavement was visible when an inspector ticketed him two days later, O'Neill said.
O'Neill, 34, said he diligently shovels to avoid falls while carrying his children to the car. Although angered by what he sees as an unfair citation, the new digital ticket has made him reluctant to fight his case in court.
"With a picture at the bottom," O'Neill said, "it kind of left me thinking I'll just suck it up and pay the $50."