VIP parking costs Baltimore thousands in meter fees, fines


Some of the same city officials engineering a crackdown on illegal parking downtown pull up at the curb not far from their offices every day and never have to feed a meter. That seemingly small perk could be costing the city big money, budget figures show.

At least 205 judges, prosecutors, board and commission members, City Council members, state officials and municipal bureaucrats have free, reserved curbside spaces scattered around City Hall and other downtown sites, an afternoon's stroll showed.

While the cost to the city of reserving those spaces may have seemed cheap in the past, the price of not having meters on them has risen in recent years along with meter rates, fines and penalties. Budget figures show Baltimore could be losing as much as $410,000 in annual meter revenue on those 205 prime sites -- and as much as twice that figure in fines and penalties those spaces would generate.

This VIP parking occupies hard-to-find downtown spaces that could be used by people with government business to conduct, city officials concede. And city Transportation Commissioner Herman Williams Jr. said the number has been expanding in recent years.

The number of parking permits issued by Mr. Williams' office -- including those for the coveted downtown spaces -- has zoomed from 726 to 936 since January 1990. "The current 'reserved' parking situation is clearly out of control," wrote Barbara Chance, the city's parking consultant, in a May 1990 report on parking issues.

She concluded that all current permits should be revoked, reviewed and reissued only if clearly needed.

"Recommendations should be prepared for moving much of this parking to off-street facilities [garages and lots] where it can be accommodated better and not remove critical short-term parking from the parking supply," Ms. Chance wrote.

Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, said that for some government officials, curbside spaces are a necessity.

"In some cases, the job would just be undoable without access to immediate parking," he said. "Take the City Council's parking. come and go probably four or five times during the day. It speaks to the efficiency of the job to have the ability to come and go quickly. Everyone makes out better."

Told of the potential loss of meter revenue, however, Mr. Ambridge said the number of reserved spaces seemed "a bit high." "There should be a specific policy to address [reserved parking] because it does become counterproductive after a point," he said. "And I do believe we've reached that point."

In March 1989, the City Council granted Mr. Williams and five other Department of Transportation officials reserved curbside spots on East Fayette Street in front of DOT offices in the Charles L. Benton Jr. Building. Mr. Williams said he sought the spaces because "there's no place to park around this city."

But Mr. Williams said he has come to the conclusion that reserved street parking needs to be cut back. "I'm making a recommendation to the mayor that we find other parking" for the current holders of reserved spaces, he said, including his own. "The public has got to have access to this building," he said.

When might he do that? He was not sure, but agreed it would be within the next year.

The city's 19 council members, the chief clerk of the council, the retired chief clerk, former City Council President Frank X. Gallagher, the director of the Department of Legislative Reference, and the fiscal adviser to the council all park at reserved spots around City Hall plaza.

Other officials with reserved street parking include the director of the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications, the head of the Mayor's Coordinating Council on Criminal Justice, the head of the Baltimore Film Commission, the city labor commissioner, members of the Board of Elections Supervisors, the director of the Office of Employment Development, the director of planning and members of the city liquor board.

And there's more: judges, sheriffs, police, officials with veterans groups, assistant attorneys general, public defenders, constables, housing and health department officials. University of Maryland officials control the permits for four spaces on West Baltimore Street.

The City Council reserves a space for the head of the Baltimore office of the state Department of Assessments. And it has granted reserved spaces on East Hamilton Street, next to the state Department of Licensing and Regulation building, for licensing Secretary William A. Fogle Jr. and his deputy, Joseph E. Owens.

For 40 years, city transportation officials say, the City Council has been passing laws reserving curbside parking spaces for the elderly, handicapped, disabled veterans and, of course, city officials.

The elderly and handicapped parkers generally are granted reserved space in front of their homes, as long as they have a doctor's certificate and the agreement of neighbors on each side. This practice does not

appear to cost the city much, since the spaces reserved are located in residential areas and usually would not be metered.

There is no central listing of the number and location of any of the reserved spaces. And city officials say they don't know how much the downtown spaces cost the city in lost meter revenue.

But a rough calculation is possible.

An informal survey downtown turned up 205 VIP spaces. That doesn't include handicapped parking, spaces for vehicles transporting prisoners near the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse or doctors' reserved parking. (Some city officials have estimated there are as many as 400 reserved spaces downtown.)

A 1990 report by Chance Management Advisors said the average city meter raises $351 annually. But downtown meters charge the maximum -- $1 an hour -- and are among the most heavily used in the city and reap much more.

City parking officials said it would be reasonable to expect downtown $1-an-hour meters to net an average of about $8 a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year -- or $2,000 a year. New meters on the 205 reserved spaces, therefore, could collect $410,000 a year.

The figures suggest the city could save a lot of money by replacing all its reserved street parking with leased space in nearby commercial garages. The average garage space downtown costs $100 a month, while a downtown meter can gross $200 a month in meter revenue alone.

But meter revenue is only part of the picture. The budget shows that the city collects more than $2 in parking fines and penalties for every $1 it collects directly from the meter.

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