A place for pardons

Our view: Even for parking tickets, it's better for a community to occasionally forgive and forget

March 24, 2011

Municipal parking meters have gotten a bum rap over the years. Since the first one was installed in Oklahoma City 76 years ago, their chief purpose has been to limit the amount of time any one vehicle can occupy a parking space.

As any urban business owner knows, this is a vital task. Customers can't reach stores if parking spaces are never vacated.

But alas — as any driver can tell you — the parking regulatory function of the meter has gradually been superseded over time by its moneymaking abilities. Parking meters, and particularly parking tickets issued to those who fail to keep a meter properly fed or stay too long in a space, can raise millions of dollars for cash-strapped municipal governments.

Even as technology has improved and the old mechanical meters have been replaced by electronic stations that govern multiple spaces and print receipts, cities and towns have remained addicted to the money such regulated parking raises to pay for such things as parking garages, street improvements and, well, sometimes just government.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Recently, the Frederick News-Post reported that Frederick was missing out on $39,000 in annual parking revenue because city officials last year voided a whopping 3,141 parking tickets.

Turns out this wasn't an example of political favoritism or bureaucratic mistake. It was, as the newspaper subsequently editorialized, a laudable and longstanding example of "treating drivers in a friendly, charitable manner."

Here's how Frederick's parking policy works: Drivers who find a parking ticket on their windshield because of a meter violation can take the ticket the city's parking office and have it voided — if they do so within 30 minutes of when it was issued. This can be done up to three times per year per vehicle, no questions asked.

The lost $39,000 (or more if the tickets would have otherwise racked up late fees) is not an inconsequential sum for a city that collects less than $500,000 from parking fines each year and faces an estimated $9.9 million deficit in its fiscal 2012 budget. But Frederick officials believe what is gained from this "courtesy" policy is a goodwill that is even more valuable.

Such a practice probably can't be precisely duplicated in a larger city such as Baltimore, where a 30-minute timetable from meter agent's hand to the appropriate parking office clerk would be impractical. (You'd still be circling City Hall looking for a parking space or stuck in a line inside). But that doesn't mean the philosophy of "friendliness" toward beleaguered drivers can't be translated.

Perhaps drivers could scan a bar code on parking tickets into their smartphones and immediately email them to a web address operated by the city. Or, for the less technologically adept, a partial rebate could be given for violations mailed and postmarked the same day the ticket was issued.

The point is, Baltimore drivers are looking for a little relief. Witness the new website (and soon smartphone application) that calculates the odds of receiving a parking ticket or other traffic violation by Baltimore city address.

No doubt that's in response to aggressive enforcement and the fact the city has raised parking fees, fines and taxes to help balance the budget. The unintended consequence of all of this has been to send a message to visitors and residents alike that they are regarded as little more than rubes to be fleeced the second they can be caught violating a relatively minor rule.

Baltimore is hardly alone. A lot of other Maryland communities have gone down a similar path. Injecting a little compassion and forgiveness — as Frederick has provided for decades through its parking courtesy program — would be a welcomed (and welcoming) change.

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