Tony Lopez Investigates: Parking By Numbers

By Tony Lopez and Executive Producer Dave Manoucheri

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) —   You pull in, pay the meter, and probably pray that you get back before you get that little slip of paper under your windshield wiper.   But is there more to that simple fact of city parking?  When people started asking if the city is writing more and more tickets in order to make money we decided it was time to crunch the numbers.

They’re not hard to spot.  The little cars, barely the size of a parking officer and their equipment, drive around the city and Midtown with a big orange sign on the back saying “vehicle makes frequent stops.”  They did make frequent stops when we followed.  We sent photographers out into the city to follow parking enforcement officers throughout a week’s time.  In that time frame, some slammed doors in our faces, others hid behind trees, and some simply did their jobs. 

We can’t blame them for being camera shy.  These officers are feeling the heat now more than ever.

“The phrase we’ve coined is predatory parking enforcement,” says Midtown business owner Eric Heffel and he has more than a few examples of what you might call “meter maids gone wild.”  He has the typical experiences, like expired meters.  Heffel says those don’t bother him.  What do, he says, are ones he says border the ridiculous.  Things like:

            –  a parking attendant running after the car to give him a ticket before he left his parking spot.

            –  having a for sale sign on his car (he got that ticket twice)

            –  An employee who had their mirror hanging an inch over the white parking spot line

            –  being 1 minute expired in a non-meter zone.

“I had another employee who was given a ticket for riding her bicycle the wrong way on the street for a short time,” Heffel says.  “I consider that predatory.”

The head of the city’s parking enforcement division, Howard Chan, says he doesn’t believe that’s typical.

“Do we have employees that might be a little more aggressive?  Probably,” says Chan.  “We don’t condone it and in fact we train people not to write those types of citations.”

The one claim he is adamant is false is that the city is looking to make money by writing more parking tickets.

“This is my department and my division here and that’s not the directive,” he says.

CBS13 wanted to know if the hard numbers backed that up.  We asked the city for the details on the city’s parking tickets.  What we got was 667,702 raw parking tickets.  The city gave us every ticket from January 1st, 2008 through December 31st, 2010.  We sifted through all that data and found that the hard numbers tend to back Chan’s statement.

We did find some unusual quirks.

The majority of the tickets handed out in Sacramento happened in the morning, specifically in the 11am hour.

The busiest day, meaning the day of the week you’re most likely to get a ticket?  Wednesday, a fact Howard Chan found confounding. 

“The Wednesday one is pretty interesting.  It’s not like I get to the roll call and say, “okay, guys, it’s Wednesday, let’s go get ’em!”

Chan says there are fewer tickets in residential areas, and the numbers back that up.  Why?  Simply because they don’t usually have officers in those residential areas.  That is, unless someone complains.  Then the whole block is under the watchful eye of a meter maid, at least for a short time.

As for any increase in tickets, there was a jump from 2008 to 2009.  In ’08, the city wrote 216,324 tickets.  The number rose the next year.  they wrote 239,465 in 2009.  However, the number of tickets written by Sacramento Parking Enforcement Officers last year was down.  They wrote 211,913 in 2010.

Still, Eric Heffel says the city confirmed to him that within the 9-block radius of his yogurt shop, YogurtAgogo, on 18th and L, there’s been a 10% jump.  More businesses are jumping on that claim, saying more tickets means fewer customers.

“I’m getting pretty regular complaints about that,” says Rob Kerth, head of the Midtown Business Association.  “All of them say it’s affecting their business.”  But he does say some of that is because of the parking rules themselves.

“The rules in midtown are confusing and if you’re not a parking expert, they seem arbitrary and random,” says Kerth.

Eric Heffel has a stronger view: “you’re literally driving people out of the city.”

More specifically, Rob Kerth claims that Midtown, one of the city’s largest revenue sources for sales tax revenue is more like the “goose that lays the golden egg.”  If that’s the case, though, he has a message for city leaders: “don’t expect the eggs if you’re gonna beat the goose.”

Howard Chan says that revenue isn’t the underlying issue.

“It’s not,” he says adamantly, “the fact that we do generate revenue for the city is almost secondary..we’re here to provide a service.”

City officials are also supposed to provide answers.  CBS13 obtained emails sent to Heffel by Mayor Kevin Johnson’s advisor, R.E. Graswich.  In them, Graswich tells Eric: “with the city facing a 35 million dollar deficit this coming fiscal year..departments have been asked to find as much revenue as legally possible.”

There’s more.  Graswich says: “if you can’t do the time, don’t commit the crime.”

Those words now echo in Eric Heffel’s mind.  He won’t drive his car to work, he rides his bike, rain or shine, and it was raining hard the day we met him. 

“I am afraid to drive my car around midtown,” he says.

R.E. Graswich later added that if he gave the implication that the parking department was asked to write more tickets that it was “all me,” and that there was no standing order the city write more tickets. 

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