Drawing A Fine Line

June 12, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Parking commissioners ratified some changes last week to the city’s parking violation and fines ordinances, but set aside taking action on doubling the penalty for expired meters until next month.

“This is a big decision that all of us need to discuss, but we need another month,” said Parking Commissioner Kevin Denhof of bumping the fine from $10 to $20.

The $10 the city currently charges for a meter infraction is low when compared to fines in other cities. Lansing, Louisville and Orlando charge $15, for example, while Indianapolis, Detroit and Milwaukee charge $20. The fine in Minneapolis is $34. In Ann Arbor it’s $18.

Only Madison, Wis., matches the city’s $10 fine for an expired meter in the rate comparison provided to commissioners by Parking Services.

“We are on the low end,” said Pam Ritsema, who directs Parking Services.

Parking Commissioner Monica Sekulich, though, cautioned the board that just because the penalty is among the lowest in the Midwest doesn’t mean it has to be raised.

“It’s obviously a volatile issue and we may continue discussing it for more than next month,” said Commission Chairman Jack Hoffman.

What direction the commission will take isn’t certain, as board members have a number of options to consider. One is to do nothing and leave the fine at $10. Another is to double the penalty to $20 and make the fine in step with what other cities charge. A third is to install a gradual increase from $10 to $20 that could rise annually by $2 for the next few years.

While the city’s fines are arguably low, its hourly metered parking charge isn’t. Most cities charge from $1 to $1.25 for an hour. But downtown meters cost $1.50 an hour.

“We’re on the higher end,” said Ritsema.

The city raised the downtown hourly meter rate to entice parkers to use ramps. But the half-hour rate is 85 cents at the ramps, or $1.70 an hour, with the Monroe Center ramp offering the first hour for free. The meter hike was also intended to discourage lengthy curbside parking that often hurts retail shops and restaurants.

“I would hate to see an increase to the punishing standpoint, but there is merit to an increase,” said City Treasurer Al Mooney.

“If they’re not paying the meter, there should be some consequence,” he added.

The fine for an expired meter went from $7 to $10 in 2000, the city’s last increase. The initial fine was $3 when the Parking Violations Bureau was established in the city treasurer’s office in 1981. Since then, the Consumer Price Index has risen 126 percent (at the end of 2005). Adjusted for inflation, that original 1981 fine would be about $6.80 in today’s dollars.

Parking Services should receive a little over $1 million in fine revenue this year and is on track to get $1.1 million in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. And according to the numbers, the city doesn’t realize much of a profit from that income. It costs Mooney’s office and Parking Services about $800,000 in direct expenses to collect that revenue each year.

“So when we add the indirect expenses in, it’s almost a wash,” said Hoffman.

Revenue from tickets written by the six members of the Parking Services enforcement team stays in the department. Income from violations cited by police officers goes into the city’s general fund. Parking Services issued 71,772 tickets last year, while city police wrote 21,296 citations in 2005.

Mooney said police are writing fewer tickets because they now have more pressing duties to perform, so he expects that less revenue will be going into the city’s major fund.

Although they decided to delay their vote on raising the expired meter fine last week, parking commissioners did agree to add another 140 meters in the Monroe North District from Leonard to Newberry streets, and 20 meters on State Street east of Lafayette Avenue to the Central City District. They also agreed to double the fine for parking in a loading zone from $10 to $20 and did the same for parkers who take up two curbside meters.

Commissioners also backed a new $15 penalty, known as the “failure to pay” fine. This fine would apply to those parked in a ramp after hours. Before leaving, an attendant places a small brown envelope on a vehicle’s windshield for a customer to insert the parking fee. If someone leaves a ramp without paying, a $15 fine will be added to their parking charge.

“We do track those in our office,” said Ritsema of the envelopes. “It’s much easier to track and get payments on those.”

The action taken by parking commissioners amounts to amending the city’s parking violation ordinance and that means city commissioners will have to approve the changes. 

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