When parking meters were invented about 70 years ago, they were designed for one purpose - to prevent drivers from hogging precious parking in the nation's urban centers. Without available spaces, merchants couldn't bring in customers, and the economy would suffer.
Meters are still helpful in this regard, but today their purpose has clearly expanded. Parking revenue, not just from meters and garages but from citations issued for violations, reliably produces millions of dollars of income each year to finance Baltimore's government.
Yet surely the inventor of the parking meter did not anticipate that his work would allow Maryland's largest city to gouge Josh Roberts of Seattle in a manner that, had it been attempted in the private sector, would be regarded as racketeering of the lowest order. At least loan sharks have been known to give their prey a break once in a while; the city is not so easily deterred.
As The Baltimore Sun reported last week, Mr. Roberts wrote a check for $948 to cover the cost of a single parking violation incurred in 2004, only to find out that he actually owed $64 more. The penalties were adding up so fast that even the city's collections agent had trouble calculating the full amount.
For a debt to grow from Mr. Roberts' initial $52 to an astronomical $1,012 in five years is nothing short of breathtaking. Had this been a credit-card company practicing such usury, instead of a municipality, someone would likely be going to jail.
Incidentally, Mr. Roberts claims to have known nothing about the parking ticket before this year. It was allegedly incurred shortly before he moved to Seattle, and the law firm employed by the city to track overdue payments only recently found him.
He had a choice: Either pay the ticket and the penalties that had accrued at a rate of $16 a month or fly to Baltimore, hire a lawyer and contest it. As that second option would have cost at least twice as much, he really had no choice at all.
We might be inclined to chalk this up to one out-of-towner's bad luck, but there are far too many examples of parking tickets ballooning to epic proportions to dismiss this example so easily. The obvious solution would be to cap penalties so that the overdue bills would be painful, just not ruinous.
City Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young has introduced legislation to do just that. He would limit fines to no more than five times the original penalty.
And how has this idea been greeted by his fellow elected officials? A lot like it came with a highly contagious case of H1N1. Nobody is so much as breathing near it. Both Mayor Sheila Dixon and the council's president say they are contemplating it. That's City Hall code for, "Forget it." The bill has yet to see even a hearing in the six months since it was introduced.
That's because the measure has two things going against it: First, it would cost the city $2.5 million in revenue each year (out of the $9.2 million Baltimore collects annually from parking penalties), and second, that's money coming primarily from people who don't live - or vote - in the city.
Correcting the outrage requires the mayor and council to act against their own political interests. They must either cut the budget by even more than the painful amount the recession has already forced them to do, or raise parking fees to offset the loss in penalty revenue.
We would hope the city will still choose to do the right thing. We are not naive enough to believe it will happen soon.
However, there may be opportunities for a reasonable compromise. At least victims like Mr. Roberts should have an opportunity to fight a ticket without traveling 3,000 miles to do so. Or perhaps penalties could be capped at 10 times the original fine.
Neither action would cause people to lose all respect for city parking restrictions, an argument Parking Authority Executive Director Peter E. Little has made in opposition to Mr. Young's proposal.
The council had heard that explanation before - from city landlords earning windfall profits from overdue ground rents. Remember the moral outrage? The city's elected leaders didn't countenance such excuses then, and they shouldn't now.
When government gets too large, it develops an insatiable need for money. What happened to Mr. Roberts is outrageous. Considering how inefficiently Baltimore is run, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the petty city bureaucrats never sent him a ticket in the first place.
The parking fines business is a corrupt one.
City administrators, meter maids and legislators are hardened and refuse to accept excuses or extenuating circumstances from the victims of this legal scam because it is a cash cow that keeps on giving.
I applaud Councilman Young. He is a man of conscience, a rare specimen in today's world of politics.