Not Fine Enough

The city plans to hike the overtime-parking penalty to $35.

HOW MUCH IS TOO much for an overtime-parking ticket? Not $35, says City Hall. The mayor and the City Council are about to hike the current $25 ticket by $10 and possibly raise the late-pay ticket—after 15 days—from the current $50 to $60. That would give Seattle one of the steepest fines among big cities—more than twice Portland's, for example. This will happen in spite of faulty meters historically known to cheat consumers out of the time they paid for. About 80 percent of the city's 8,700 meters had to be repaired last year, and thousands of parkers might have been overcharged (although only 30 took the time to ask for their change back). Additionally, the burden of the new overtime fee is least likely to fall on the people who are proposing it: $5 of the hike is sought by the City Council, whose members have their own assigned city parking spaces; the other $5 is the brainchild of Mayor Greg Nickels—the man with the chauffeured car. They say that City Hall, facing a $60 million budget deficit, badly needs the revenue. And an added parking sin tax is an easy call.

"There are dual objectives," says council member Jan Drago: "Increasing revenues and managing parking to produce more turnover and parking capacity. It's a delicate balance between parking-meter rates, fines, and enforcement." The result will be an estimated $3.4 million in new city revenue.

It also would be rejection of a recent exhaustive parking study done for City Hall that recommends only a $5 hike. Little consideration was given to the touchy subject of extending meter hours or raising meter rates from $1 per hour. (Only 10 cents an hour in 1970, hourly rates relentlessly escalated to $1 until 1993, when they hit $1.50, then were quickly dropped back to $1 when shoppers and merchants declared war.) Today, the city's annual meter revenue of $10 million is exceeded by its parking violation revenue of $12 million, and the city has moved slowly to fix the faulty meters that added to that income. Suspecting that was by design, nationally known class-action attorney Steve Berman, in a 1999 lawsuit, claimed that 40 percent of the city's meters were time-faulty and had taken Seattle parkers for $20 million in recent years. Then-Mayor Paul Schell admitted the meters were breaking down but said, in effect, too bad: If people felt ripped off, they could apply for refunds. The uproar sent him backpedaling into the City Hall safe. It took a mere $281,000 and 90 days to make the repairs or recalibrate stingy meters.

UNFORTUNATELY, METERS don't stay fixed. Today, the fault rate is under 10 percent, says Mark Larson, a senior repair technician at the city's nine-person meter shop. But the city still must fix (or simply recalibrate) 50 to 75 meters a day, he says. "Things have definitely improved from a couple years ago," says Larson. "The city let things lapse. The meters weren't being recalibrated, and a whole lot of them were short-timing. Today, fixing that is a priority." Nonetheless, the city repaired 6,935 meters last year, or about eight out of every 10, according to the city Transportation Department. That's a lot of potential overtime violations wrongly issued by the city's 67 parking-enforcement officers—they make between $47,000 and $54,000 a year, and each generates more than three times that much in ticket revenue, according to city figures. (Mayor Nickels-and-Dimes, from the backseat of his car, has decreed that the scooter squad should follow a quota system to bring in even more money.)

Though City Hall claims that such fines are meant to stop overtime parking and improve meter revenue while benefiting businesses, in truth the city would be hurting if it succeeded. The ticket revenue is budgeted annually and goes directly to the general fund, says city finance director Dwight Dively. It can be used for anything from filling potholes to gassing up the mayoral car. Also figured into the annual budget are related revenue forecasts such as $100 fines and other costs that overtime parkers must pay when their cars have tallied four or more unpaid tickets and are impounded. The city also gets 75 percent of the interest that is added to the $3 million in parking tickets it currently has in collection.

Seattle's new citywide overtime penalty will be in line with San Francisco, which charges $35 downtown (though still $25 in its neighborhoods), but will top other cities such as Boston ($25) and Portland ($16). As a sort of olive branch, officials here are promising a new, improved parking system starting next year. Seattle will test a kiosk meter that accepts credit and cash cards. The European-style "multibay" pay stations will be placed one or two to a block and offer coin and card slots and a keypad to punch in the numbers of a marked street parking slot. It's a kind of electronic version of the private-lot pay box. Tracy Krawczyk of SeaTrans says the pilot program will begin downtown, where eventual conversion could cost $5 million if all 6,500 downtown meters are replaced in coming years. (About half of the 8,700 meters citywide are the old mechanical types, which are constantly being replaced with electronic heads.) The multibay stations have wireless computer connections to ease operation, maintenance, and fee collections, the city says. They also offer, according to the Reino Multibay Meter Co. Web site, "Enforcement Officers fast, effective enforcement tools that will make their task easier."

NOT EVERYONE HAS taken meter heists lying down. The city reports that ticketed parkers are increasingly taking advantage of a local court system that allows drivers to contest or explain tickets to magistrates at neighborhood city halls. More parkers also are asking for their money back. Typically, about 10 people annually request refunds after losing nickels, dimes, and quarters to a faulty parking meter, says Kathryn Harper in the city attorney's office. But in the first 10 months this year, 30 claims were filed. Claimants are paid by check if their loss is more than $1. If it's under $1, they must show up at City Hall and be paid from petty cash. Of the 15 claims paid so far, the total returned was $26.25. That's an average of $1.80. Apparently, it's not about the money.

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