Oakland has $316,000 that the city is not legally entitled to keep.
It reflects $316,000 in overpayment for traffic tickets for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011. State law requires any overpayment of traffic tickets to be refunded.
It took an outside auditor to discover the overpayments among the $22.7 million in ticket fines that Oakland collected for the fiscal year. The city had no idea they had collected overpayments. They also did not know it was the law that they return the money.
How often does "I'm ignorant of the law" get a taxpayer off the hook with the government? Here's a hint: It's about as often as Oakland tops lists of the 10 safest cities in America.
Oakland, of course, is offering to mend its ways. No, it's not granting retroactive refunds. And no, they are not doing what other cities do and simply returning overpayments in the future.
Instead, they are going to continue to ignore what the state law requires and only automatically refund the money if the amount overpaid is $200 or more. The outside auditor notes fewer than 1 in 200 overpayments are over $200.
Instead, the city will "credit" overpayment to future parking tickets written against vehicles with the same license plate. Then once a year the city will notify the public that there are unclaimed funds. It gets better. The city is placing the burden on ticket payers to provide documentation they overpaid. In other words, Oakland is twisting the state law to reduce the odds significantly that they will ever have to return a penny of traffic ticket overpayments.
Oakland was breaking state law before the audit. Now they are rigging the system so they will not need to stop shaking down citizens for excess money.
The auditor noted most parking ticket overpayments are the result of misreading a ticket. But some are in cases where the city has gone as far as placing a lien against state tax refunds while failing to notice the person who received the ticket has already paid.
Government forcing everyone else to play by the rules while they pick and chose what they want to follow is nothing new.
The best example for government double standards is how the state and federal governments view income taxes. If you're late paying them, they assess you a penalty and interest. But if they over collect, they return the money to you without penalizing themselves or paying interest.
Making all of this all the more ironic is how elected officials and key bureaucrats seem genuinely hurt and shocked that people don't trust them.
What's not to trust? The state passes laws and cities such as Oakland can ignore them either out of ignorance or by consciously deciding to do so. Then - if they are caught - they can write their own rules to create the outcome they want.
The state also has one standard of conduct for us and an entirely different one for them.
Forget the fiscal cliff. Worry instead about moral abyss that seems to drive everything government does. Situational ethics - whether it is withholding evidence in a prosecution that could help defendants, having a double standard when it comes to over and under payment of taxes or blatant dismissal of laws - drives many of the folks we entrust with the workings of government.
Sure Oakland can use $316,000. But then again most of us can use $20, especially when the $20 is legally ours.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.