Meter Madness

Inside the baffling, torturous, and incredibly profitable world of Seattle parking enforcement.

Secreted away in a dark corner of the Seattle Police Department’s Parking Enforcement unit, there exists a letter, archived Exhibit A for Anger in its purest, most undiluted form. A twisted testimonial to anyone who has ventured near the slick edge of madness upon seeing a parking ticket tucked under their windshield wiper, the letter is celebrated the way one might celebrate a ruptured appendix preserved in a jar of formaldehyde.

“We’ve never gotten anything like this before or since,” marvels parking-enforcement supervisor Wayne McCann, though “LICK MY SACK BITCH BOY,” a rather ballsy directive once affixed to a meter minder’s scooter, is worthy of honorable mention.

A broad-shouldered man with dark hair creamed back Fonzie style, the 49-year-old McCann carefully removes the neatly typed bluster from a manila folder, where it has been on file since the summer of 1995. After shooting off a Xerox copy, he glances at the once-disturbing but now comically crass missive. He shakes his head while reacquainting himself with the blush-inducing content, which arrived unsigned and anonymous.

Handing it over, McCann says, “You won’t believe it. We’ve held onto this one for a long time.”

Here it is in its unseemly, unedited entirety. Look away now, children, look away.

To Whomever It May Concern:

Right now, I CANNOT express how I am feeling in words at this minute. How dare you give me a parking infraction for something so miniscule, I cannot believe you stinking, donut-eating piece-of-Shits have anything better to do than wait by the fucking money-eating parking meters and handout these ass-stinking tickets.

Right now, there are serious crimes happening all over the city . . . People are getting their fucking brains blown away, drug deals are going down, and people are getting raped!!! Who knows, right now your daughter may be getting fucked by some drugged, nigger-gangster. Right now, I can’t even image you assholes are considering this to be a crime. What?? Are you sons-of-bitches out of your mind?? My fucking hard-ass earned money is paying for your GOD-DAMN salaries, just so you can go out, eat your dumb-ass donuts and grow pot-bellies and sit around as you get fatter from the greasy donuts and twinkies, you shit-smelling, fat tub-of-lards . . . NO!!!! I have better things to do with my money than waste more of my precious earned money, that to give you lazy shits more.

Fuck all of you and your MOTHERS!!!

Go to HELL!!

P.S. I can’t fucking believe you fudge-packing, ass-kissing, dog-fuckers are making me pay for a stamp too. You assholes. Here’s your fucking stamp. Eat shit and I hope you die from a blood-clot and your dick shrivels up and falls off. Mother Fuckers!!

Not even Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke would have gone so far as to write something as completely untethered as this—though, in fairness, he might have considered using the line about the shriveled dick. For the most part, though, Lucas “Luke” Jackson was content to showcase his disenchantment with authority by slicing off the heads of a dozen parking meters with a chainsaw one drunken, sweat-soaked night.

Naturally, Newman’s character wound up in a Florida chain-gang prison for his crime against inhumanity, learning (the hard way) what Bob Dylan knew all along: “Don’t follow leaders, watch your parking meters.”

Kathy Karrasch saw the job posting for a parking-enforcement officer online. “Person must be personal and like the outdoors,” the ad read in part. At the time, Karrasch, a single mom, was at wit’s end. Her son was in middle school. She was working at a credit union and hated it. A catering gig on the side, making wedding cakes and birthday cakes, wasn’t cutting it. Money was tight. She filled out the application.

“So I showed up at this job overview thing at North Seattle Community College,” recalls Karrasch, a buoyant, dark-brown-haired woman of 43 with an infectious laugh. “This was three years ago. There must have been 1,000 people there. And they gave us the booklet to read and gave us a test. I remember, 782 people took this test. We had to remember license-plate numbers, and there were some situational questions.

“And they said they were going to hire 10 people. You gotta be kidding. Anyway, I didn’t hear a word for four months, and then one day I got an e-mail asking me to come in for an interview. So I’m like, ‘Holy camoly.’ ”

Three police parking-enforcement supervisors interviewed her. They asked questions about her life, all the way back to her high-school days in Southern California. They inquired about drugs (no), whether there’d been a DUI (no), her emotional health (fine). She made it to a second interview, where she took a battery of agility tests—one of which required her to repeatedly get into a scooter, run around it as fast as she could, and then climb back in.

Eight months passed before Karrasch received an e-mail asking for a second interview. Shortly after, she was hired.

After a month of classroom work, learning traffic codes and the city’s geography like the back of her hand, and two months of field training, Karrasch earned the tools of the trade: a Go4-Interceptor, an Intermec, and a police radio.

It’s a bright June morning as Karrasch is tooling around South Lake Union in the Interceptor, a department-issued scooter whose top speed is governed at 37 miles per hour. At the corner of Terry Avenue North and John Street, she parks, gets out, and begins to walk.

It is uncanny how quickly Karrasch can spot something amiss, no matter how briskly she’s walking down a street. “Your eyes are trained to memorize everything about that license plate. Even when I’m off, I’m seeing expired tabs or whatever, and my son will say, ‘Mom, stop it already.’ ”

There’s a blue Mazda too close to a fire hydrant. She punches the plate number and a code into her Intermec, and a ticket emerges: $47. There’s a Toyota Sienna on Republican with expired tabs; a white Volvo in front of a No Parking sign; a Ford pickup parked in a food-truck zone.

“I’ve only been gone seven minutes,” the truck owner says pleadingly. “I know, I’m sorry,” Karrasch calmly replies.

In an alley near Boren, a cluster of cars and motorcycles are pressed together. “What a mess,” she sighs, walking away. “If I ticket one of them, I’ll have to ticket all of them.”

Later, Karrasch confides a couple of tricks of the trade. First, all that swearing and cussing can come back to haunt you if you decide to protest the ticket. “We write down private notes, so if I have to go to court, I can say ‘This person was a jerk, a real jackass, he flipped me off.’ ” Also, “We switch up on our routes, so people don’t follow our routines and think they can park here because we won’t be around until later in the day.”

Last year, Karrasch and Seattle’s 96 other navy-blue-clad parking-enforcement officers (PEOs) wrote up 538,102 tickets. That’s more than one every 60 seconds. By the time you finish lunch today, almost 360 of your fellow citizens will have received a parking ticket. And what a revenue river it rains.

The city of Seattle raked in an astounding $25.1 million for parking infractions in 2012, nearly double the amount it corralled in 2004. Fines have risen only $9—from $35 to $44 for overstaying one’s welcome at a meter—so more vigorous enforcement is unquestionably the reason the big bucks are flowing.

These days, PEOs seem to be everywhere, like yellow jackets at a summer picnic. There was a time when one could take a calculated risk: a quick dash into the post office for a book of stamps, rushing the kiddies into the daycare, grabbing a Dick’s Deluxe. No problem. Nowadays, there is no such luck. Leave your car for one minute at your peril.

Over the past 10 years, the number of parking attendants has increased from 67 to 105 and the number of tickets written has soared by almost 30 percent, while the number of people going to so-called mitigation hearings to fight them in court have almost doubled since 2008.

“No doubt about it, it’s become a cash cow,” says Seattle Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who has begun to question the city’s history of raising parking rates to increase city revenue. In January, Harrell, a mayoral contender, told the Downtown Seattle Association in a candidate questionnaire that downtown parking rates are too high and should be lower or “even free.”

“I do know, and I’m not going to put the blame on anyone else,” he told Seattle Weekly in a recent interview, “that the revenue was very enticing back in 2008 and 2009 when we were having some pretty lean budgets.”

Seattle is not alone among cash-strapped cities that have upped ticket prices, bought into pricey new pay-station technologies, and filled its streets with additional officers in a desperate effort to shrink budget gaps. The question now is whether the city of Seattle will choose to turn down the spigot now that its economic situation has sharply improved in the past two years.

Says Harrell: “You do not want to have a revenue stream based on bad behavior, and it’s clear that we’ve added all these new PEOs in order to realize new revenues.”

No one in Seattle city government generates more income relative to their salary than a parking-enforcement officer. We should call them Rainmakers, in fact. The starting salary for a PEO is $45,760, and tops out after three ticket-writing years at $52,291 plus benefits.

Let’s do the math: With 538,000 tickets written last year, each PEO, on average, wrote roughly 5,550 of them. Multiply that by an average infraction cost of $40: Every PEO, all by his or her lonesome, added around $222,000 to city coffers—more than four times their top salary.

Imagine the city council’s heartbreak if they ever struck.

Exiting the elevator on the 38th floor of the Municipal Towers, one is seized by the prodigious duotone photograph of downtown Seattle, circa the late 1920s. The sweeping mural shows a bustling Fourth Avenue, women with Dutch bobs and well-polished shoes, men in bowler hats and grey fedoras. The street is at full throttle, roaring with Ford Model T’s and Chrysler Imperials, Studebakers and silver-chromed DeSoto sedans, Flyers made by Briggs & Stratton. Even then in young Seattle, parking was scarce, a vexed commodity, a confounding mixture of excess capacity and chronic shortages.

The 38th floor is home to the manager of parking operations. His name is Mike Estey. He’s been at this thankless post for seven years. A laconic man, careful with the words he chooses, he’s the city’s 46-year-old parking czar. His days are spent hunkering over ledgers of parking data until his pale blue eyes redden: performance-based pricing; curb occupancy rates; variable cost structures for a dozen or more Seattle neighborhoods; replacement costs of parking pay stations; studies of new meter-sensor technologies; data on the average time one might expect to cruise the central downtown core before landing a parking spot.

Wonks like Estey know that some 255 million registered cars in America compete each day for an estimated 800 million parking spaces. They can tell you that the total amount of land in this country devoted to parking is nearly the size of Connecticut. Joni Mitchell nailed it, all right: “Pave paradise, put up a parking lot.”

In a brief interview in his small-windowed office, Estey observes that there are 500,000 on-street parking spaces in Seattle—a number that isn’t growing despite the onslaught of high-density apartment/retail complexes that rise with minimal requirements for developers to provide adequate parking.

Of those half-million spaces, about 13,000—a number that’s risen more than 50 percent in the past five years—require payment. Each day, 35,000 transactions are made, nearly 13 million a year—90 percent of them with credit cards—ranging from a buck for two hours at Greenlake and South Lake Union to $8 for the same amount of time in the central downtown core and on the waterfront. Most of these transactions are executed by 2,200 pay stations, called Stradas, installed between 2004 and 2010 at a cost to the city of just more than $18 million.

Parkeon, a Moorestown, N.J.–based firm, makes these 6-foot-2 kiosks. If you’re in the market, by the way, a freshly minted Strada pay station can run around nine grand, but do note that their life expectancy is 10 short years, says Parkeon marketer Sean Renn. That’s not a whole lot less than a dog, which is how a lot of people treat the heartless hardware—with some justification.

Many a man has grown old and weary (not to mention gotten soaked to the bone) waiting for these infernal machines to move from Authorizing to . . . thank you, Jesus, Approved.

Too often these stubborn, stoic green monoliths mock you with their laggardly pace. They know you’re running late, and, wireless beasts that they are, don’t give a tinker’s damn. Who among us hasn’t at one time or another given one of them a good, firm kick? Little wonder that last year alone the meter monsters weathered 1,710 graffiti assaults, costing taxpayers $100,000 to remove the spray paint and assorted stickers.

“Yes, we had some troubles with the machines from time to time,” says Estey, with characteristic understatement. “We tried testing a bill acceptor, but it wouldn’t work because we get a lot of moisture around here and it won’t take a moist dollar bill.”

Estey is pleased as punch that a pay-by-phone system is at last on its way. Before summer’s end, motorists will be able to pay online with a smartphone. No more fiddling around with credit cards or quarters—or having to make a mad dash to feed the greedy Strada. After setting up an account by entering one’s license-plate number, a driver will be able to download a mobile app that will track how much time is left on the meter. If, for example, a driver doesn’t pay for the maximum time allowed (say, only 90 minutes in a two-hour zone), it will be possible to add up to the limit—30 more minutes—for a 35-cent fee. The ease of the modern era comes to the curb. But it almost wasn’t so.

In October 2012—one year after varying parking rates were established for each Seattle neighborhood—the Seattle City Council soured on the pay-by-phone idea. Things fell apart when the council learned that the city would lose just over $1.25 million in its first year, and $845,000 the year after that, if it dared make it easier for its residents to avoid a $44 parking ticket.

Councilmember Jean Godden, who initially supported the ability to satisfy meters remotely, lamented at a budget hearing: “This does seem to be a heavy cost to bear for this convenience.”

Councilmember Nick Licata joined the sad chorus: “It’s going to cost us money that we could be spending somewhere else.”

At the time, Godden argued in a column she penned on the issue that “parking-enforcement officers encountering a vehicle without a window sticker would need to take the time to check electronically to see if a vehicle had provided payment by phone,” which would necessitate hiring additional PEOs.

A month later, however, in November 2012, the council relented and adopted the new parking plan. “Nothing really changed,” Godden explained earlier this month. “We just all finally decided that we did want to be customer-friendly, and so we said, ‘OK, let’s do this. Let’s be customer-friendly, even though really, we’re only talking about being able to add 30 minutes or so.’ ”

“You have no idea what kind of things can come can out their mouths. I had one guy tell me ‘I hope you die of cancer,’ ” recounts PEO Karrasch. “It happened at rush hour on Second Avenue. He actually hunted me down to tell me that.”

Karrasch’s story is one of many told last month during a roundtable discussion arranged by supervisor Wayne McCann. The PEOs gathered inside the Seattle Police Support Facility, a cheerless, functional building located off Airport Way near where the glassy new Mercedes-Benz dealership is nearing completion. Its drab, non-descript exterior conveys little about what goes on inside. The SWAT team trains here; there’s a DUI unit, a fingerprinting section, an evidence lab—and it’s the headquarters for the city’s parking-meter enforcers.

Let’s listen in.

Carl Vanloo, a five-year member of the squad: “All I did was write him a courtesy note to say his tabs had expired, and he left me a note in big letters that read: ‘Get a real job, fuckers.’ ”

Karrasch: “People will say ‘How do you sleep at night?’ and it’s not even their car I’m putting the ticket on.”

Gene Yee: “People get ballistic. It’s like you killed their mom, and I’m thinking, ‘It’s only a parking ticket.’ ”

Shari Ng: “Usually it’s just screaming, but sometimes I’ve had to call police.”

Karrasch: “Last year at the hydro [races], which had a parking lot set up for people with handicapped placards, I had a father with a little kid in the car. And he says, ‘I just dropped my dad off; he’s over there somewhere,’ and the kid goes, ‘I thought Grandpa was dead.’ ”

McCann: “Back when I was out there, I had one guy with a meat cleaver coming at me.”

Vanloo: “I’ve come back and found a 32-ounce Big Gulp cup on the seat of my scooter, filled with urine.”

Vanloo: “I know one PEO who had a dead fish tied to the bumper of her scooter. She dragged it all the way back to the old Public Safety Building.”

All of them agree that seldom does a day go by without at least one flash of the bird and the inevitable “I guess you had to get your quota”—in response to which the PEOs stress in unison, loud and clear: There is no quota system.

July 16, 1935, is a date that for some will live in infamy. On that day, the first parking meter on planet Earth was installed on the southeast corner of First Street and Robinson Avenue in Oklahoma City. And the world has not been the same since.

Storekeeper-turned-newspaperman Carl C. Magee (famous for uncovering the Teapot Dome Scandal in New Mexico) and roustabout Gerald Hale had invented a timing device that would allocate set amounts of time for parking. They dubbed the machine, ominously enough, the “Black Maria.”  The era of the parking meter had begun, and there was no turning back.

By the early 1940s, cities across the country were installing meters. In January 1942, Seattle’s Traffic Division installed 1,600 parking meters in the central business district.

As the Museum of History and Industry’s Phyllis Franklin wrote, “The meters, according to newspapers of the day, were objects of curiosity, and public reactions to parking fees were mixed. It was reported that one observer pronounced paying to park ‘unconstitutional’ because ‘automobiles are already taxed and you can’t tax them again.’ Some objected to paying for time they didn’t use.

“One man wanted to know why ‘regular guys’ had to pay when trucks and public vehicles didn’t. Another was glad for relief from parking congestion. A man from Minneapolis assured Seattleites, ‘We have them and we like them—now that we’ve gotten used to them.’ And a local newspaper boy saw them as a boon to business: ‘We’ll sell ’em a newspaper, take a dime, then they’ll have a nickel to park with.’ ”

It’s like something out of Desert Storm—that is, if Kuwait had been won with Go-4 Interceptors. Stop by the Seattle Police Support Facilities Building some morning between 8:30 and 9 a.m. and you’ll see them rolling out en masse, a vanguard of Interceptors on a mission, lights agleam, game faces on. Watch out, they’re coming for you.

You don’t write nearly 540,000 tickets a year without the right equipment. The city leases 69 of the three-wheel scooters at $700 a month each. Made in Alberta, these four-cylinder gas-powered babies—fully equipped with a $2,000 police radio, emergency flashing lights, an air bag, and air conditioning—cost $33,000, about the same price as a new Infiniti. They’ll travel an average of 60 to 65 miles on a busy day, says the city’s fleet operations manager Chris Wiley.

Indeed, Seattle’s PEOs are a force to be reckoned with. In addition to the Interceptors, the fleet includes 13 compact SUVs, 12 sedans, eight Segways, three T3s (known as Chariots), two vans, and one pickup.

As for the hand-held Intermecs that spit out the tickets that land under your windshield, those are driven with APS software and girdled by a belt-mounted thermal printer via Bluetooth. The department owns 120 of them, each costing just shy of $4,000.

These devices also know who’s naughty or nice. Once your license plate is entered into an all-knowing memory bank, it will immediately alert the PEO if you have four or more outstanding parking tickets. The damn thing will light up like Christmas.

“And when that happens,” says Karrasch, “we call the boot guys.”

Currently, 16,981 vehicles in Seattle are eligible to be booted. At the same time, the Municipal Court of Seattle forwards, on average, 459 accounts each day to the city’s collection agency, Alliance One, for tickets that have been delinquent 60 days and for which the scofflaw has failed, after 15 additional days, to respond to warning notices.

According to the Court, if everyone decided to get street legal and pay their outstanding tickets, fork over the money owed in collections, and make good on default penalties and interest, the city of Seattle would today be richer to the tune of $54,941,055.

Her hair caught up in a silver clip, Lisa Leone adjusts her dark-framed glasses, takes a deep breath, and prepares herself for another day of excuses. She is one of the five full-time city magistrates who listen and endure the never-ending parade of people who will, for uncountable reasons, not go gently into that good night when it comes to parking infractions. Leone makes $52.25 an hour for her judicial chores inside her small but comfortable chambers on the second floor of the Municipal Court Building. She figures she sees 60 to 70 ticket protesters each day—keeping pace with last year’s 12,196 mitigation hearings, up from 6,983 in 2008.

Leone knows that her role is more than just an adjudicator, deciding whether to lower a fine because of mitigating circumstances. The job also requires patience and firmness—and a little human kindness doesn’t hurt, either. “I’ve had some who will come in and burst into tears, and you know that it really has nothingto do with the parking ticket. I see a lot of emotion here,” she says, before recalling an incident closer to home to illustrate the point. “I remember my grandmother had cancer and my mother and sisters were trying to get her into chemo. It had been a long, trying day, and my mother came out of the hospital and she had gotten a parking ticket. She was really, really upset. It was like a final straw.”

During a Thursday-morning proceeding several weeks ago, Leone, as usual, goes into the waiting room and calls out the name of the person whose case she will hear. She is reluctant to talk about any specifics of past cases, preferring instead for her guest to observe for himself. In comes a gangly, late-50ish man with a graying ponytail. He’s here to face the music for expired tabs. A $47 fine hangs in the balance.

His name is Charles, and he’s got a lot to share with the judge. He goes on at length about a car accident in California in the late ’80s; he’s on disability and anti-depressants. “I’ve had a full mental breakdown,” he says. “I got an MRI that’s coming up on my brain. I’ve been in total mental collapse the last two weeks.”

Leone has had enough, and says, as kindly as she can, “I don’t need any more verification of your medical problems.” She reduces his fine to $20 and refers some information about where he can seek additional help for any number of the issues he’s dealing with.

Before calling another defendant, the judge confides, “You know, almost everyone I see puts forward an excuse that they are really invested in. Most of them are sincere.”

In comes Mark, a wine-seller who parked his SUV, as he normally does, in a yellow-curbed truck zone on Market Street in Ballard. He needs to vent. “I am a small-business owner. You people keep raising the [parking] rates. I’m hemorrhaging money. I’m already 10 dollars in the hole just parking here this morning. I’ve never had any problem parking there before.” Mark proceeds to pull out photos of other cars that have been parked in this particular space without the required commercial loading permit.

Leone listens carefully and nods, then counsels him to think about getting the commercial permit to avoid further problems. He says he’ll look into it. She reduces the $47 fine to $15. Mark leaves happy.

His hearing took just eight minutes, during which time eight parking tickets were written in the city of Seattle—where somewhere, rest assured, someone was writing a seething letter of complaint.

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