A City Pins Its Hopes on Meter Maids


June 17, 1991|By C. FRASER SMITH

The sensitive ear will have heard the budget-cutting knife raspacross the bone here in Baltimore.

Fire captains awaken to find themselves lieutenants, summarily demoted for no infraction save their decision to work for a city in a financial free-fall.

Pennies are being saved at almost everyone's expense.

City fathers are about to commission 500 new metered parking spaces. They plan to hire a squad of new meter maids to cover the new territory. Despite the view that much of life in the city is dysfunctional, City Hall's latest revenue-raising strategy plays to strength.

Meter maids occupy one of the last visible redoubts of municipal efficiency. A car owned by a knowledgeable source -- I am withholding my name at my request -- was ticketed at 12:31 a.m. recently.

The ticket writers are diligent souls upon whom fire lieutenants must now rely to hold off demotions to sergeant.

Of course, our city needs the money: Unless we want a repeat of the great fire of 1904 we may want to sustain the morale of the fire department.

But doesn't the city resident pay already? He is the one who must buy garbage cans twice a month to replace the cans which are lifted over the back fence by those unable to resist a freebie. He is the one who cannot be sure the pizza man will not be held up on the sidewalk outside his house. He cannot leave a baby carriage on his porch and hope to find it there when he comes back. He is the one whose tax rate is double those of his county cousins.

In this context, the sublime efficiency of ticket writers leaves him feeling victimized. He is not a scofflaw. He has walked in and out of lunch counters ordering coffee and quarters. He has absented himself from important work, fought his way through oppressive mid-afternoon heat to plug insolent meters which twitch only grudgingly into the zone of legality, quarter by quarter. If he cuts it too close, the red flag goes up.

The maid will have noticed. Are the meters wired to a central board which blinks when one of them goes unfed?

Having been apprehended, humiliated by wanton flouting of civic virtue, the city resident is nonetheless angry. He sees the game! The city wants him to stay overtime at his meter, not because the public safety is endangered, or because the parking spot is needed for some other municipal use, but because the infraction will net $17. If he does not stay overlong, the great throbbing urban enterprise will expire.

Perhaps the city fathers will argue that penalties meted out by the maids will fall mostly upon hapless non-residents. The city resident is sufficiently street smart to keep his car safe from the scrambling, scribbling hordes of ticket cops, they may say.

The city knows that life is logistics: two-job families, two cars, one parking-lot pass. The city realizes that, statistically, X number of citizens are going to overpark and the more opportunities it can provide for such lapses the better will be the exchequer.

The city also knows psychology: It knows people deny their sins. Attempting to shield themselves from the corrosive guilt associated with overparking -- to pretend they won't have to pay the $17 -- a certain predictable number of them will squirrel tickets away and forget to pay them.

The meter is running.

When the fine is not paid on time, the city compounds the tribute it demands. If the tickets add up to more than three, the motorist will feel the sting of Orange Death, the dreaded boot. A sum of more than $100 will be charged to have this modern vehicular leg iron removed. The future of Baltimore depends upon escapism.

And, statistics show, the city goes to the well of parking-ticket revenue less often than many of its sister cities.

The sound you hear is the sound of the budget cutter's knife-edge growing keener.

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Sun.

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