"The officer says your meter was expired," the magistrate said, peering into her computer screen. "What do you say?" I was still ruffling through my wad of scribbled notes at Ballard's Little City Hall, in a side room where a municipal satellite court is held on Wednesdays. I had come to fight my parking ticket and methodically began laying out my well-mapped defense: Fed meter No. OU1139 with $2 in coins, got the full two hours, returned in one hour, 40 minutes to find the flag up and a dreaded $35 expired-meter ticket from sneaky officer Sheppard flapping on my windshield.
The city's haywire meter short-timed me, I said. I was about to explain that I had talked with a fellow at the city's meter shop who told me that of approximately 9,000 meters, the city has to fix 75 different ones each day. In 2001, the city repaired 6,935 meters, about eight out of every 10. Also, though I didn't ask City Hall to reimburse me for the 20 minutes' worth of time its meter failed to cough upsaving the city at least 40 centsI could have. Last year, more than 30 people asked the City Attorney for their money back, some of them getting as little as a quarter. Also, I wanted to mention the e-mails and calls I get at the newspaper from irate parkers, such as the woman who said, "As a senior lady just 5 feet, I am not tall enough to read the charges for parking. The plastic windows are so obscured, it is hard to even see through them, and when I add coins, it's hard to see if they registered. . . . "
But before I could get all wound up, the magistrate waved me off. "I can give you another court date so you can challenge the officer in court, or . . . ," she said with a pause, "you can plead guilty and there will be no penalty."
Hmm. That's probably what they told those guys on death row, too.
On the other hand, by confessing to a police charge I didn't commit, I wouldn't be complicit in the bigger heist by City Hall. The 2003 city budget is a signed confession that parking enforcement isn't about parking control or about generating that 85 percent turnover at city meters to help businesses, as stated in Council Resolution 28986. Rather, the mayor and City Council have just hiked parking fines by as much as 40 percent this year to pay bills and fill in part of a $60 million deficit.
But for the mayor/council fund-raiser to succeed, they need magistrates such as this one to pull their weight. Yet with a twist of justiceguilt by innocenceshe could grant a form of reasonable doubt, unclog the court calendar, and, intended or not, poke City Hall in the eye.
Well, if she wasn't getting with the program, neither was I.
I'll take the plea bargain, I said.
"Have a good day."
A 45-second trial, and I was free to go.
MAYOR NICKELS AND DIMES
I ran my tiny day in court past Jim Goche, a longtime crusader for parking enforcement reform for the American Civil Liberties Union in Olympia.
"It's not easy to beat a parking ticket, and it's good to hear that it cost you only the time it took to fight the charges," says Goche, a former Snohomish County deputy prosecutor. "Not many people with kids and an 8-to-5 job can afford to do this, even if the cost is only time, and so they wind up facing parking fines that rapidly grow into hundreds of dollars with surcharges and thousands of dollars in long-term financial costs if they go to collection." It's the poor who will be hit hardest, he says, and whose cars are more likely to end up being towed and sold.
"I am puzzled, however," he adds, "why the magistrate asked you to plead guilty, if paying a fine wasn't at issue. It makes court stats look a little better but otherwise doesn't appear to do anything for the city."
Indeed, Seattle lost money in my "test" case, paying for the officer, the magistrate, and the paperwork but failing to obtain my reimbursement. That's one flaw in the city's new rate-hike plan. While the council establishes the rates, judges and magistrates have the latitude to lower fines or, as in my case, wipe them out altogether for those who bother to ask. City Hall has no reading yet on which way the courts are going, after only a month of new fines. "It's too early to know what the judges will do," says mayoral press spokesperson Marianne Bichsel. "The fines are reasonable, we think."
Only a comparatively minuscule number of car owners fight parking tickets they are wrongly given (or even rightly given, since simply by challenging your ticket before a magistrate can lead to a lower or zero fine). But more parkers may be joining the war. As of January, overtime parking violations and other ticket fines have jumped $10 (see box, this page). If unpaid after 15 days, the same ticket costs $50 or more.
Whose brilliant idea was this? Mayor Greg Nickels And Dimes. You know: the big guy in the backseat of that chauffeured city car with the reserved parking spot? He observed last year that parking enforcement officers (PEOs) could write 75,000 more parking tickets annually. The City Council jumped right on it and passed a budget based on higher ticket-revenue predictions, trying to strike what council member Jan Drago told me is "a delicate balance between parking-meter rates, fines, and enforcement." Besides backing the hiring of new PEOs to write those extra tickets, the council bumped the fines and mapped out the addition of new meters. The mayor and council think the higher fines alone can bring in an additional $1.5 million in 2003 and 2004, a total of $3 million.
As it is, parking and parking enforcement revenues already generate around $22 million a year$10 million from coin meters and other parking sources, and $12 million on average from fines (about $2 million of that is overdue fines gathered by the city's collection agency, with another $6 million going uncollected). Some part of the coin revenue is earned by cheating the publicas the city cheated me. The city claims its meters are 90 percent reliable todayit's replacing thousands of its remaining mechanical-head meters with supposedly more efficient electronic meters. But it was as recently as 1999 that a sampling showed that up to 40 percent of meters failed to give the right time. That adds up: A ballpark estimate by class-action attorney Steve Berman, who attempted to sue the city in 2000, put the loss to consumers at $20 million over six years. (Reminder to the mayor: One of the officials who sloughed off citizens' cheater-meter complaints was former Mayor Paul Schell.)
GROWING A NEW FOREST OF METERS
As part of its strategy, City Hall chose not to hike meter coin rates, now $1 an hour at two-hour meters and what works out to $2 an hour at 15- and 30-minute meters (a standard hour cost just 10 cents in 1970, and rose to a high of $1.50 in 1993, drawing protests from parkers and merchants; rates were rolled back in 1994). Seattle's meter revenue has been holding steady in recent years even though the city has fewer meters. In 1993, for example, there were 9,234 meters; last year, the count was 8,598. The city is remedying that by slowly growing a new forest of 1,600 additional meters and is mulling a pay-box system in some areas where drivers note their street "stall" number and pay with money or cash/smart cards at a central computer post. Among the locales to be reseeded with meters are those that have lost the most meters due to construction, traffic changes, and other causes. They include downtown, West Seattle, First Hill, Harborview, and Roosevelt.
The city is bringing in seven new PEOs. The police unit was down to 60 but is authorized for 67, covering 40 citywide districts. It's almost a full house now, with five new officers hired, trained, and deployed and two more in the works. The five new PEOs were city employees whose previous positions were cut due to budget reductions.
Unfortunately for drivers and parkers, PEOs are likely the most cost-effective method of raising money the city has, making them an easy option when the city needs more cash. Officers earn a comfortable $47,000 annually in salary and perks (supervisors earn $54,000). Each PEO on average brings in a boggling $240 an hour in ticket revenuestheir handheld computers can spit out 400 tickets a day, giving the city the potential of writing $100 million in tickets annually. From 1994 through 2001, according to city averages, each PEO racked up from $205,000 to $235,000 a year in revenue. (Man! Any PEO want to take a stab at running City Light?)
Despite Nickels' "more tickets!" fiat, which sounded a lot like a quota, "The police department has not asked parking enforcement personnel to issue more tickets," insists Lt. Steven Paulsen, head of the department's Parking Enforcement Division (the PEOs are civilian personnel). But it's a quota of sorts: to reach the mayor's goal of 75,000 new tickets and fulfill the council's budget projection, the unit must come up with 240 more tickets a day, six days a weekif, that is, each of the 67 PEOs worked full time at writing tickets. They don't.
A recent city parking study shows that PEOs actually spend only 50 percent of their day on ticket patrol. The other time is spent on traffic control, special events, administrative duties, and checking out abandoned car reports (amazingly, the SPD receives about 4,500 calls per month of reportedly abandoned vehicles, the city says). When you add in nine annual holidays, time spent in court, plus sick and vacation days, the mayor's target number becomes ever more elusive.
The city is now reducing some of those non-parking-enforcement duties such as traffic control for the city's departments of transportation, utilities, and City Light. In 2001, PEOs spent 673 hours performing such traffic controls. Theoretically, if those hours were spent ticketing, the city could have raised an additional $161,000.
This year, that would still leave the city $1.339 million short of its budget projection. Lt. Paulsen maintains that "staffing unfilled vacancies will naturally increase parking ticket statistics." He and others rely in part on analysts' predictions that, if the average PEO brings in more than $200,000 a year, seven new ones might bring in $1.4 million. But the seven aren't exactly newthey're filling assigned positions that were left open or recently vacated. For that matter, the city's own parking study concluded that "additional PEOs [do] not necessarily translate to more revenue. How the PEOs spend their time is a better indicator." The mayor's office still thinks it will all add up in the end. "Yes we do," says spokesperson Bichsel, cautioning, however, that the $1.5 million a year "is an estimate. Lots of our revenue forecasts are estimates." Unfortunately, the city has a $60 million budget hole to prove it.
HUNTING FOR CASH IN THE NEIGHBORHOODS
It's just possible, some PEOs tell me, that the mayor and council's parking-income plan is high on fumes. "More officers will make a difference," says one of several downtown-zone PEOs I chatted with on a recent afternoon, "and you can just ticket every little thing you see, I suppose, if that's what they want. But I don't know how you can write a lot more tickets without getting a lot more time to do it. I mean, 75,000 a year?"
PEOs were once known as meter maids, or meter checkers, back when Seattle created the parking enforcement division in 1957 under the city treasurer's office. It became part of the police department in 1973 and is staffed by male and (mostly) female officers. The city says it has had a high, 25 percent turnover in recent years, due partly to retirements. While the money's good, says one PEO, "You get a lot of people in your face every day. I'm not sure how this [increased enforcement] will affect that, but I expect more face time."
Another PEO, relatively new on the job, recently caused a stir when she wrote a ticket to a driver who left his lights on while his car was parked. "It was blown out of proportion," she told me, referring to a news report about the incident. "A supervisor rescinded the ticket as soon as [the driver] complained." She had made a rookie error, she says, misinterpreting a city code that allows ticketing ($38) of cars whose drivers, errantly or otherwise, leave on their car lights, provided the lights are left on high beam; this car's weren't. "It's pretty amazing, though, how many laws there are on the books that we can write up," the PEO adds.
Altogether, when the city recently raised parking fees, it listed more than 100 potential, sometimes arcane, violations. You can be ticketed, at a base cost of $38 to $44, for false auto alarms, parking too close to a wall or fence, facing the wrong way on a street, parking at curb bulbs, tampering with a meter, blocking driveways or alleys, parking over traffic information that is painted on the pavement, and parking near a railroad crossing.
It is also illegal to leave behind your keys in the ignition or in your door lockor, for that matter, not to lock your doors when you go. You can't park a car covered with advertising if your primary purpose for leaving it there is to advertise. You can't leak gas or drop oil or grease on the street. And while of course you can be ticketed for driving a car with expired tabs, you can be ticketed for parking it, too.
These are not rigidly enforced codes. But that is likely to change, along with an expansion of the hunting grounds into the neighborhoods. PEOs have already begun aggressively ticketing in communities where for years there has been only occasional enforcement. Lt. Paulsen calls them "areas that citizens have historically requested additional enforcement action" and says there will be a new emphasis on getting rid of abandoned vehicles. Such crackdowns, Paulsen says, will "naturally increase parking ticket statistics." City Council members and the mayor also insist that residents have asked for more action in their neighborhoods, especially where parking is tight, and PEO response is slow.
But one Magnolia resident, for example, says he didn't request any new enforcement in his area, on West Blaine Street, where there isn't a parking problem. Though residents are required to have a zone permit ($27 last year, $31 this year) to park all day in the four-hour curbside zones, the man has parked for years without a permit in front of his house without even seeing a PEO. Yet, in the course of six recent days, he picked up two restricted-parking-zone violations. Each ticket costs $44, and after 15 days, $69.
TICKETS ARE TAXESBACKED BY COLLECTION AGENCIES
That's one reason PEOs are fanning out into the neighborhoods, since the purpose of this crackdown is revenue, revenue, revenue. And it's not just the Seattle way. Around the state, cities and towns are sweeping up as much as $30 million a year through parking fines, says Olympia ACLU crusader Goche. "Cities are now writing about 1 million parking tickets a year and sending around 200,000 to collection," he says. While this raises money, it also takes a toll on individuals, merchants, and the economy, he arguesa domino effect that can do just the opposite of what meters are supposed to do. It can drive away customers, cut into store profits, and eventually affect a city's market base. That would end if "cities got back to using parking regulation laws to regulate parking," he says, "not to replace lost taxing authority."
A semiretired attorney, Goche spent two and a half years and $6,000 to beat parking tickets in his hometown, Olympiahe even wrote a protest song about itand is happy to give tips to frustrated parkers. "The laws are a mess," he argues, and the ticket penaltiescivil law violationscan pile up until they exceed fines for some felonies, he says. By the way, if you didn't do the crime, you still must do the time when it comes to parking violations, says Goche.
"Cities charge the vehicle owner, not the driver, even though the owner may not know he got the ticket until it's too late to pay the base fine and penalties are added." When the Legislature "decriminalized" parking enforcement 20 years ago, Goche says, "no one kicked much [about notification], because parking fines were low and it wasn't worth it to pay for a lawyer and challenge these due process violations." Today, Seattle and other cities are using collection agencies and are willing to wreck a person's credit rating to collect a small parking fine, he says. "The parking enforcement system requires a lot of work to bring it back into balance with our due process and consumer protection laws."
To that end, new legislation is being introduced in Olympia this session, sponsored primarily by Rep. Sandra Romero, D-Olympia. If passed, it would require cities to at least send a notice by first-class mail to the person charged with a nonmoving infraction before trying to collect any penalties. A copy of House Bill 1800 notes that "a relatively minor infraction may have a disproportionate effect on the owner's life and livelihood," and a violation that isn't brought to the owner's attention until it reaches collections can unfairly affect "the owner's ability to secure employment, housing, insurance, and health care." The bill has some oomph from a state Supreme Court ruling that declared when penalties are added to a violation, due process protections must also rise.
In the meantime, in Seattle and elsewhere, if you don't quickly pay your tickets or challenge them in court, you'll learn about it the hard way, such as after you've accumulated five unpaid tickets and officially become a scofflaw. The tickets will show up on the handheld computers of any PEO who finds you parkedillegally or otherwise. Your car will then be impounded. With the towing fee added in, you could end up paying $500 or more for its return.
But take heartyou'll be helping the city reach its budget goal. After all, the mayor's limo doesn't run on hot air.
(Base fines; some rise 50 percent or more after 15 days)
On a planting strip
Within 30 feet of a stop sign
In bus/truck/load zones
Load zone, time restricted
Marked disabled zone
Junk vehicle (impound)
Top Meter Neighborhoods
Central Business Core
Pioneer Square/International District
Meter Revenue, by Zone
(Average yearly income for one meter)
No Park Zone
No. of PEOs