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Monday, September 14, 2009

Nice article by Bob Sullivan of MSNBC's Red Tape Chronicles

Cash-strapped cities pile on the parking fines

Posted: Monday, September 14 2009 at 06:00 am CT by Bob Sullivan

It’s the very definition of a bad day. No quarters in your pocket, the line at the post office is longer than expected or you need to grab lunch and don’t have time to circle the block and find parking. You run back out and get to your car just in time to see a parking officer pulling away after leaving a ticket on your windshield.

For want of a quarter, you now owe $50 to some government agency.

There was a time that such calculated risk-taking might have paid off. Odds were against a meter maid spotting your car at just the wrong time. Or perhaps you were good at talking your way out of tickets. No more.

Parking meters and meter maids have become less forgiving. Around the country, cash-strapped municipalities are turning to what's sometimes called a "curb tax" to shore up weak balance sheets. Cities are raising ticket prices, hiring more citation officers, turning to gimmicky technologies, even selling their parking systems and enforcement to the highest bidder, all in a desperate effort to shrink budget gaps.

"There's no doubt about it. Virtually every city has hired more ticket agents," said Glen Bolofsky, founder of ticket-beating site

Bolofsky said governments’ philosophy about parking tickets has radically changed. Where once local officials held onto a pretense that parking tickets were chiefly a deterrent aimed at safety or public convenience, police departments and elected officials now openly discuss citations as revenue stream.

That's obvious by looking at marketing materials from companies that sell parking and ticket collection services to local governments.

"For nearly 30 years, we've been helping cities and towns make money," croons Municipal Management Association Inc., which helps cities collect parking fines. At the bottom of each page is the company slogan: "Municipal Management Associates … Turning Parking Tickets Into Cash."

And right now, cities are doing more of that than ever:

In New York City, the undisputed king of parking tickets, the municipal coffers are stuffed with nearly $600 million in parking ticket revenue annually – about 50 percent more than in 2002. The financial opportunity is so large that New York hired more than 200 new agents this year, at a time when most city agencies were being cut.

In Chicago, the city leased its entire parking operation to a private company earlier this year. In exchange for the next 75 years of parking revenue, the city received an up-front payment of $1 billion from a group lead by investment bank Morgan Stanley. The deal is being challenged in court.

Atlanta announced it was outsourcing its parking enforcement to a Milwaukee-based firm named Duncan Solutions Inc. The city had been collecting $2 million in fines each year; now, Duncan has promised to send it a yearly check for $5.5 million. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, all 73 meter maids in the city were laid off this spring when the parking duties were outsourced to Duncan.

In Louisville, Ky., as in many other towns, the city has lowered its threshold for "booting," or immobilizing, cars. Now, only two outstanding parking tickets are enough to put the dreaded boot on a tire. And, in a major policy shift, cars may be booted even if they are legally parked when spotted by enforcement officials.

Normally, the boot devices are locked and can only be removed by law enforcement officials, which can require hours of waiting. But in Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington D.C., local officials recently instituted a new system that allows alleged violators to unlock the devices using their cell phones. The cost : $115, plus payment of outstanding fines. The system, provided by New Jersey-based PayLock Systems, is also being used in New Orleans, Baltimore and about a dozen other cities. In some locations, it’s married with a camera-equipped car that lets citation officers cruise the city at normal driving speeds, looking for license plates tied to outstanding parking tickets.

In Washington D.C., city officials announced earlier this year that they were stepping up parking enforcement to raise millions in new revenue for the city. The most bizarre tactic: equipping street sweepers with cameras that automatically take pictures of cars parked in their path. The camera-generated parking tickets are expected to generate $2 million in annual revenue. Parking-crunched D.C. residents also complain that overaggressive ticket agents are suddenly enforcing laws that have been ignored for years, such as no parking within 5 feet of an alley or driveway.

“I recently got a ticket for parking in a space on the street that I have been parking in for three years at least and never had a problem,” one resident wrote recently in an Internet group devoted to parking frustrations. Said another: “We've received the unwanted attention of an overzealous meter maid. (She) recently began ticketing residents' cars for being too closely parked to our own driveways. Our 3 tickets state we have to park at least 5 feet away from a driveway … our own driveway. “

In Boston, ticket prices have soared. The price for being caught parked in a crosswalk recently rose from $40 to $85. Parking more than one foot from the curb jumped from $20 to $35.

And changes are hardly limited to huge cities. Sacramento, Calif. recently added an $8 fee to every parking ticket, hoping to net $1.5 million to help close a $50 million budget gap.

No mercy

Driver's advocates say the higher fines and new technologies are not the worst part of the new world order in parking. At a time when many drivers can least afford big surprise bills, parking citation officials are showing little mercy -- and in some cases, handing out unfair summons by the bushel, all in the name of making money.

"It’s an outrage when cities depend on parking summons for revenue. When they do, they are opening the doors for very serious abuses," said a New York-based citizens' advocate who calls himself Jimmy Justice. He films illegally parked New York City officials and embarrasses them by posting the short films on YouTube. "When someone gets a bogus ticket, everybody knows this is just part of a giant racket. It's sanctioned mugging."

Angry drivers are filling his inbox him with woeful tales of unfair tickets or overzealous agents, he said.

"Getting a ticket while backing into a parking space. Getting a ticket while sitting there for three seconds before backing into space. The list is endless. Parking enforcement agents in are trigger happy,” he said.

The New York Times did a data-driven analysis of city parking agents recently, and found that one had managed to write 227 tickets during one 5-hour stretch. A typical shift sees agents write about 40 tickets. Meanwhile, letter-of-the-law enforcement ruled the day. The city wrote 276,000 tickets during the year for drivers who were illegally parked for five minutes or less, the paper found.

Frustrations in New York are running so high that City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. recently said complaints about traffic tickets outnumber all other complaints to his office -- and he's considering legislation that would institute a grace period for drivers.

“The way traffic agents are enforcing the law is absolutely out of control," he told the New York Post.

How aggressive is enforcement? Bolofsky said he's seen New York drivers get tickets for double-parking merely because they are waiting for someone to pull out of a spot on the street - a time-honored practice in the competitive world of city parking.

"They sneak up behind people. They are waiting in the wings, in the shadows," he said. "Then they knock on the window and hand the driver a summons."

The good old days

Things weren't always this way, Jimmy Justice says. Police and traffic enforcement officials used to implement a long-standing policy called "warn and admonish." Illegally parked drivers were given a chance to move their vehicles before summonses were issued. But when cities began treating parking tickets as a revenue source instead of a public policy tool, that changed, he said.

"Fifteen years ago if someone was stopped in a no-parking zone for a moment, parking agents would wave and say 'you have to move,’ and any normal person would move. There would be no problem," he said. "Today they write tickets now and ask questions later. Because today parking violations is big business."

If the system feels cold and unforgiving, that's partly because many cities are using new technology that cuts out human interaction -- and the criminal justice system -- from the process. In Seattle, a pair of lawsuits are contesting the use of cameras to detect and cite speeders. Twenty area municipalities are named in the suit. In the city of Seattle, a new camera system wrote 58,000 tickets valued at $5 million in its first three months of operation.

Because the contracts promise a minimum payment to the cities, and the manufacturer agreed to split citation collections after that, one of the lawsuits contends the system gives "the cities and the vendors an illegal incentive to issue improper tickets and to err on the side of issuing a ticket versus declining to issue the ticket.”

Meanwhile, handheld electronic ticket issuing machines are sweeping municipalities, allowing meter maids to write more tickets – and more important, reduce errors that lead to dismissals. One manufacturer, DXY Solutions Inc., says switching to handhelds increases a single officer’s ticket-writing productivity by 30 percent.

Other new technology seems downright mean-spirited. Parking meters invented and sold by the French firm Technolia send texts messages to local police the very instant that a meter clicks down to zero.

While stories of parking citation budget bonanzas through increased enforcement aren’t hard to find – Denver’s collections soared from $16 million to $20 million in the past year, for example – the long-term impact of increased enforcement might not be so positive, said Jimmy Justice.

“This really creates a rift between the police department and the average citizen,” he said, noting that most people make no distinction between citation officers and armed police. “There used to be more communal respect with police officers. … Now when people see a police officer, they think they’re going to mug them, find a reason to write a violation. It’s not fair to paint all police with the same brush, but that’s what happens. It’s not good for anyone.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

If You See Something, Say Something.

"If you see something, say something. " New York City's slogan to help prevent terrorism has very important ramifications. The slogan implies that in addition to all the Government resources , the City also relies on the vigilant eyes and ears of the public to help keep the City safe.

Obviously , the police cannot be everywhere at the same time.Not only can everyone participate in protecting our City, but it is imperative that we take an active stance and become aware of our surroundings in order to make it more difficult for the terrorists to accomplish their objectives.

The Slogan "if you see something, say something" does not have to relate only to acts of terrorism.In my opinion, the slogan should refer to every part of City life that needs improvement.

New York City is the greatest city in the world. The city has many culturally diverse neighborhoods, with great food, entertainment, interesting personalities, and miles of opportunities for anyone who seeks employment or education.

Unfortunately , there is also a dark side.

For the past two years, the focus of my activism has been to improve the City's aging transit infrastructure, endless traffic jams, lack of parking, and the unfair practices of traffic enforcement.Quite simply , I want to make New York City a friendlier place for people to live, work, and visit.I have also tried to empower the public and wake them from a state of apathy.

I believe that there was a certain degree of altruism when traffic & parking laws were written.The laws were written to improve public safety for pedestrians and motorists.

New York City rakes in over $600,000,000 a year in parking fines. It has become painfully obvious that the city is no longer interested in public safety but rather in collecting revenue. The biggest clue to this equation is written on the orange envelope that comes with a parking summons."Make all checks payable to the Department Of FINANCE."

With such a large amount of money at stake, there is too much opportunity for corruption and lack of discretion by the ticket writers of the Traffic Enforcement Agency.All too often, these poorly trained officers treat the public obnoxiously and can often be seen violating the same laws that they are supposed to be enforcing , thereby creating a public safety hazard and offsetting the reason they exist in the first place.

I have entertained millions of users with videos showing my confrontations with these traffic officers who are abusing their authority.

Although I am happy to make people laugh and entertain them, my ultimate purpose is to inspire dialogue and effect positive change on these issues in order to make life easier for everyone in the city.

I hope that the public outrage will force city hall to rethink its strategies and remove ambiguous signage, find ways to improve the flow of traffic, create more parking, provide more training and supervision for the out-of-control traffic enforcement agents, and show more compassion and discretion in summons writing.

I hit the streets armed with a video camera.When I see a public official behaving improperly I videotape it and call the 311 system and file an official complaint.

The only way that city officials can continue to abuse the system is if we turn a blind eye and give them the free pass to do so. Obviously, I cannot be everywhere at the same time. If we want to make the city a better place we have to all work together.It is our responsibility and civic duty to help prevent terrorism , and also official misconduct and malfeasance.

Therefore, "if you see something, SAY SOMETHING !"


Jimmy Justice.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Councilman Felder is a hero

NEW YORK, NY — Several City Council members announced on Sunday that a bill had been introduced that would create a five-minute grace period before drivers are issued summonses for parking violations like expired meters and alternate-side parking rules.

The bill addresses a longstanding pet peeve among many city lawmakers, whose constituents often complain of feeling victimized by unforgiving traffic agents.

“When people park, they shouldn’t have to feel that there are vultures, certain agents, waiting to give them a ticket the moment they are in violation,” said Councilman Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who sponsored the legislation, which was introduced on Wednesday.

The grace period would apply to parking meters and to places where parking is prohibited during certain times of the day — when streets are being cleaned, for example, or when school is in session — and in periods when parking is allowed only for commercial vehicles or for loading and unloading.

An analysis by The New York Times in November of more than 10 million parking summonses issued in New York City in 2007 found that at least 276,000 drivers received tickets for breaching alternate-side parking rules within five minutes of the rules’ going into effect. Of those, 28,000 were written precisely as the rules took effect, the analysis showed.

Since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took office, the number of parking summonses issued citywide has increased by 42 percent, Finance Department statistics show. The fines for specific infractions have also risen, and nearly 800 additional traffic agents have been hired to enforce the rules.

Agents no longer abide by an informal grace period, police officials said. Agents are now instructed, instead, to use discretion when writing the summonses — a subjective concept that Mr. Felder and some of his colleagues on the Council said was rarely employed.

“If traffic agents can’t use their own good judgment, then we’ll make them do it,” one of the bill’s supporters, Councilman Vincent J. Gentile of Brooklyn, said at the announcement, which was held on the steps of City Hall.

The council members said the stricter enforcement is part of the Bloomberg administration’s strategy to raise more money at a time when the city finds itself strapped for cash. Over the last fiscal year, the city collected more than $620 million in parking fines; during the 2003 fiscal year, the city collected $429 million in fines.

A mayoral spokesman, Marc LaVorgna, denied the suggestion, saying that the agents “are there to enforce the law, and the laws are there to keep traffic moving and to keep parking spaces in front of businesses turning over.”

He declined to comment on the specifics of the bill, as did Christine C. Quinn, the Council speaker. Through a spokesman, Anthony Hogrebe, Ms. Quinn said the bill had been referred to the Council Transportation Committee, where it would receive “a thorough review.”

The committee’s chairman, John C. Liu of Queens, has yet to take a position on the legislation, but he said the concept behind it is “an understandable reaction from New Yorkers who too often feel they’re being squeezed as cash cows for the city.”

The bill could be the third parking-related measure enacted in recent months. On Dec. 29, Mayor Bloomberg signed legislation temporarily suspending alternate-side parking rules during snowstorms. Four weeks earlier, he had signed a bill allowing drivers to park at a missing or broken meter for as much time as they would be allowed to park if the meter were operational. Prior to that, parking at missing or broken meters was allowed only for up to one hour.