At a time when city government officials are scrambling around for money to close a continuing budget deficit, Berkeley City Council’s resident research scientist—Councilmember Gordon Wozniak—says he has looked into the budgetary returns on the city’s 23 parking enforcement officers and come to a conclusion: spend more time on meter enforcement and less time patrolling unmetered zones.
“At some point you face the issue of diminishing returns,” Wozniak said of the city’s enforcement of the parking ordinance in unmetered areas. “I want to see some better analysis, but to issue a ticket in a residential area, the officer has to make two passes, one to chalk the tires and a second to check when the time’s up.” In addition to the double work—it only takes one drive-through to determine if a meter has run out—Wozniak contends that the chalking has an additional cost to the city: three enforcers have been out on disability this year. “They get carpal tunnel syndrome from chalking the tires,” the councilmember said.
“The cost of one [parking] enforcement position, including the vehicle, runs about $100,000 a year,” Wozniak said, in explaining the budget figures behind his conclusion. But after the City Council authorized five more positions last year, he said that total revenues increased only six percent—less than the cost of the five new enforcers and their accompanying vehicles.
Although parking enforcement officers are supposed to pay for themselves by the parking ticket revenue they generate, that might not be happening, Wozniak contends, because of a perennial Berkeley problem: broken parking meters.
“It may be that what we need to do is hire more people to fix the meters,” he said.
Interviews with city staff members reveal that Wozniak has a point—about the lost meter revenue, at least. Berkeley boasts 3,263 parking meters, 3,200 of them digital versions of the old standby one-meter-per-space Duncan Eagle meters. The remaining 63 are Aussie import Reino meters, each covering up to six parking spaces.
The city’s meters yielded $1.9 million in coins in the last fiscal year, $700,000 short of the budgeted amount.
Yes, “that’s because so many meters were broken,” said Capt. Stephanie Fleming, who commands the Berkeley Police Department’s Field Support Division, which includes parking enforcement.
Assistant City Manager Peter Hillier said he expects the meters in the current fiscal year will increase, yielding about $2.3 million in coins.
Meter breakdowns have become a staple of the Berkeley street scene and the source of relentless media coverage. Last year, a third of the city’s meters had been rendered inoperable—for the most part intentionally—said Wozniak, explaining that “people are constantly breaking and jamming them.”
The city doesn’t keep figures on non-functioning meters as such—only on the numbers repaired, according to Danette Perry, Senior Public Works Supervisor. Perry said that 3,358 meters were brought in for repair or routine maintenance in last December, more than double the 1,446 recorded a year earlier.
Hillier cited the numbers as “representative of the increased evidence which the city has placed on meter repair over the last year.”
December 2003 was also when the city’s superintendent of parking meters retired, Wozniak said, noting that no replacement has been hired, even though “that person is very important for the city’s general revenue,” he said.
Fleming agreed that the city should devote more effort to keeping the meters up and running. But while Hillier also acknowledges that meters need fixing, he disagrees with Wozniak’s contention that diminishing returns challenge the need for more enforcement officers.
“I don’t think we’ve reached the threshold,” Hillier said. “There are areas of the city where enforcement is sparse because of lack of enough officers to provide adequate coverage.”
Capt. Fleming said the city could use more men and women in those distinctive $20,000 Go-4 ticketmobiles. “In the mid-1990s,” she said, “there were 28 parking enforcement officers,” not counting two supervisors, “but the city cut way back—down to 18—in the interests of ‘kinder and gentler’ enforcement policies.”
While the city now employs 23 enforcement officers—one currently on a year-long assignment with another city department—the number of Residential Preferential Parking zones has increased. “So we have a lower number trying to cover more territory,” Fleming said.
Two positions are currently unfilled, and Fleming is considering creation of a temporary employee list to fill in for officers who are off due to illness, vacation, or disability.
“Parking enforcement officers bring in about $200,000 each annually—four times their annual salaries,” Fleming said.
Like Hillier, she challenged Wozniak’s contention that the city might be devoting too much of its enforcement effort to non-meter enforcement areas. “We’re trying to give as much enforcement as we can across the board, but we’re spread pretty thin.”
Fleming did agree that chalking tires takes a lot more time that checking meters and leads to more physical problems, but she said it still produces a substantial net gain for the city coffers. And the captain disputed Wozniak’s claim that chalking leads directly to disability claims. Fleming said only one of the three disability claims filed by city parking meter enforcement officers last year was caused by arm and shoulder injuries from tire-chalking. The other two resulted from an Achilles tendon injury and an organic illness, she said.
Even with its numerous problems, however, Berkeley’s parking enforcement program is a cash cow for the city’s budget.
“We brought in $6.9 million from citations in the last fiscal year, $200,000 more than was budgeted,” said Capt. Fleming.
Hillier said drivers who overstay the two-hour daytime limit in the city’s Residential Preferential Parking permit zones chip in $2.4 million in fines, and folks who do things like improperly park where curbs are red (no parking zones) yellow (commercial loading and unloading), white (passenger loading and unloading), or blue (handicapped), or leave their cars at bus stops, crosswalks, intersections and the wrong side of the street on sweeping days cough up another $2.2 million. The remaining $2.3 million comes from tickets issued for expired meters.