UPDATED September 23rd, 2013: Seattle’s unique FarmBoat Floating Market at Lake Union Park was forced to close in July because it was arbitrarily accused of owing money for someone else’s parking ticket debt. After spending nine months arguing with a City of Seattle collection agency over a decade-old $7,800 accumulation of parking fines levied against one of its 2012 merchants, UPWA announced that the FarmBoat Floating Market will be closed for the remainder of the season due to unresolved legal issues.
Featured on King 5’s Evening Magazine in June, the beloved dockside floating market has been hosted aboard the 125′ historic steamship Virginia V for the last three years as part of a maritime heritage awareness program designed to promote local farms and artisan foods while sharing the rich history of the Pacific Northwest. The multi-vendor maritime market was a one-of-a-kind weekly community event that captured the interest of landlubbers and seafarers from around the world.
How did this happen? It sounds ridiculous, but it is no laughing matter. FarmBoat was accused of employing a person that the city was seeking to collect fines for an accumulation of old parking tickets going back over ten years. Washington State law allows ticket debt collectors to force businesses to garnish wages on demand from employees with past-due citations. The problem is, the person they were after was never an employee of FarmBoat. “They were just a merchant selling to the public at the floating market last year and there was no way to garnish anything from them” according to FarmBoat sponsors–“especially three months after the season had ended.”
The way the law works is that if you (employers) don’t provide a satisfactory answer to a debt collector’s wage garnishment demand within 20 days, you owe the debt. The “Writ of Garnishment” order was sent in January to a storage yard instead of a state registered mailing address for FarmBoat. As with most farmers markets, there is not much happening in the middle of January. The city’s contract collection agency, Alliance One, was able to finagle getting a judgement lien for nearly $8,000 against FarmBoat with a demand for immediate payment of the offender’s parking ticket fines or else. Despite FarmBoat’s repeated denials of having any financial association with the debtor, the collection agency insisted that the person was employed at the Floating Market through last winter without any direct evidence. Under the state garnishment laws, accused employers are essentially guilty until proven innocent. Refusal to garnish an employee’s wages can even land an employer in jail.
The basis for the “employment” accusation was allegedly made because the merchant’s name was found on FarmBoat’s Facebook page. FarmBoat has been unsuccessful at convincing the city’s collection agency that it helps its market participants to promote their products through Facebook and other social media tools, but does not employ them. Social media connections are all the proof a debt collector needs to start legal actions against potential employers even though state statutes and traditional debt collection practices previously required more evidence. FarmBoat claims that the argument over whether one of its market merchants was an employee or not is moot anyway since the market wasn’t open in January when the garnishment order was sent. State law does not allow debt collectors to go back in time to force retroactive wage garnishments.
FarmBoat had hoped that the City of Seattle would find it inconsistent with the purpose and intent of traffic laws to punish anyone other than the original offender. But that is not the case. Income from traffic and parking citations is big revenue for Seattle. Vagabond serial offenders known as “scofflaws” are much harder to collect from then small unsuspecting businesses. The city’s rapidly growing traffic offense revenue program may be finding a lucrative opportunity in exploiting seasonal businesses with surprise attacks during the off season. Festival producers and farmers market organizers should be extra cautious about who they allow to participate in their events. Although the law ultimately does not permit the government to simply take money from people who don’t owe the debt, the cost of fighting garnishment legal battles from an employers perspective is beyond what most small organizations and individuals can muster.
The unexpected legal work for FarmBoat this season has required an immense amount of time and resources–making it impossible to continue the Floating Market at Lake Union Park until things are resolved with the City of Seattle. The state garnishment system works fine for big businesses with personnel departments and lawyers at the ready, but it is very burdensome to small enterprises–Especially for those without employees who must come up to speed very quickly on a complex body of unfamiliar laws in order to avoid potentially massive liabilities and possible jail time. Seattle Municipal Court has a one-size fits all policy when it comes to businesses who they think might be harboring deadbeat offenders. Increased garnishment activity against small enterprises is one of many new economic barriers that is keeping the number of business startups down to some of the lowest levels in history.
Event planners fear that the City of Seattle’s unprecedented debt collection strategy against FarmBoat could burden all sorts of special event and festival operators with new risks. According to the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, this is the first they have ever heard of a situation where an employee garnishment collection action was brought against a farmer’s market to collect from a merchant invitee. “It would be like trying to force a landlord to garnish from a past tenant–it’s an illogical notion.”
Many attorneys will tell people who are caught up in situations like this to just find a way to pay the debt if it’s under about $10,000—because that’s what it could cost you to mount a proper defense. Municipalities across the country are seeing the benefits of shady collection practices on debt amounts that are too expensive for defendants to litigate. They know that most people will likely negotiate to pay amounts under the legal cost threshold because it is not worth the hassle to go to court. Debt collectors will often steeply discount “questionable debt” in order to get the money quickly before their victims learn too much about the laws. FarmBoat was initially offered a 50% discount on the scofflaw’s debt if it would pay quickly and walk away. FarmBoat refused on the grounds that it was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment–believing that the government can’t just take money from people without due process and legal authority.
Some Seattle residents argue that the needs of the masses outweigh the rights of the few who occasionally get tagged with unjustified debt–because parking tickets help fund cash-strapped city programs. However, laws are ultimately based on the fundamental principals of the US and State Constitutions. The danger of arguing for arbitrary state action is that it presents a “slippery slope” scenario. Will neighbors and social club members be forced someday to help the government collect its fees? Could your connections on Facebook and other social media sites be enough for government to make you liable for another person’s debts? Will community farmers markets and festivals become a thing of the past when organizers are forced to be responsible for debts of their independent merchant participants? Will scofflaw offenders use liberal collection laws to shift their debts to others?
The aggressive legal actions against FarmBoat organizers came while the group was in the process of launching a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign at the beginning of the 2013 market season. Threatened possibility of bank account seizures and garnishments of organizer’s personal incomes paralyzed the FarmBoat Floating Market program and stopped the fund raising activities that were anticipated to bring in at least $25,000 in June.
Organizers of the FarmBoat program are sincerely apologetic to everyone who supported the unique floating market aboard the historic steamship Virginia V at Lake Union Park over the last three years. They hope to get things resolved soon and get back to building a unique Seattle experience. If you are interested in helping to stand up against a blatant abuse of government power, organizers of FarmBoat are asking that people contact the Mayor’s office and ask them to create policies to prevent the city of Seattle from destroying small business and valuable community programs over aggressive ticket collection practices.
FarmBoat is managed by the Urban Public Waterfront Association (UPWA.org). UPWA is a grass roots non-profit organization that is dedicated to connecting people with the sea by building awareness for the need to create public access to Northwest waters through programs like FarmBoat. For more information about the FarmBoat Floating Market program, visit www.FarmBoat.org.