A parking ticket flapped languidly in the breeze, tucked snuggly in the windshield of a car parked on First Avenue North. The owner, who asked not to be named, walked out of her office, plucked the ticket out from the wiper and sighed.
“That’s my third one today,” she said, seemingly defeated. “It’s not like I’m going to pay it though.”
It may not come as a surprise that many Birmingham residents have complained recently about the “three-wheeled blitzkrieg” that has besieged the city, as one local said, referring to the vehicles driven by meter attendees. But what happens to people who don’t pay their tickets? Does the city expect to collect on all of the tickets that are written?
Many seem to believe that parking tickets are nothing more than a momentary nuisance — they don’t need to be paid. There are people who have accrued dozens of tickets, who have no intention to ever pay them off.
Jarrod Robertson is a 26-year-old music instructor living downtown. Upon moving in a little over a year ago, Robertson said he noticed the parking situation was somewhat bleak.
“When I moved in, I asked my roommate who was already living there where I should park. He said, ‘It depends on if you care about tickets or not,’” Robertson said, sipping a cup of coffee. “I told him it didn’t matter because I never pay parking tickets anyways.”
Because of this, Robertson began parking on the street. The tickets began to pile up over the course of several months.
However, Robertson said that the “blitzkrieg” of tickets started a little over a month ago. Whereas he would see parking meter attendees sporadically, he now sees them as many as five times a day. As he was explaining this, an attendee pulled up outside the coffee shop where he was sitting, and began writing tickets.
“Yesterday I saw two or three just in the time it took me to walk around the corner to the coffee shop. The thing is, they always make their rounds, probably once a day, if that. But now I can’t park there 15 minutes without getting a ticket,” Robertson said as the meter attendee behind him scribbled on his handheld citation machine.
Also troublesome to residents is the fact that parking rates seem to be inconsistent between various meters. And in some cases, meters don’t work at all. Nevertheless, commuters still find parking tickets — sometimes more than one a day — neatly tucked into their wipers.
Last year, the Birmingham Traffic and Engineering Department passed an ordinance that raised the price of meters throughout the city. In many places, the fee was $2 per hour.
Business leaders and residents alike argued that it would deter people from coming to shop and eat downtown because no one carries around that many quarters at one time.
In November 2014, the Birmingham City Council voted unanimously to change the meters back and labeled the skyrocketed price as a mistake. However, after the mistake was reportedly rectified, many meters remained priced at $2 per hour.
According to Birmingham City Councilor, Kimberly Rafferty, who is the head of the Transportation Committee, all of the meters have now been properly adjusted.
“The screw-up that happened with the Traffic and Engineering Department has been completely corrected,” Rafferty said on Friday. “Mainly because I have been yelling at them for being so damn slow in fixing the problem.”
The meter price adjustment was supposed to result in doubling the original fees, from 25 cents to 50 cents an hour throughout the city. But what happened, Rafferty explained, was that those prices were not covering the cost of maintaining the meters or paying the salaries of meter attendees.
“That was the main reason for the increased the rates,” Rafferty said. “Looking at Atlanta, parking on the street is $2 an hour, but we thought that was a little too much. The goal is supposed to get people to park temporarily on the street, no more than an hour. But since Birmingham isn’t proactive, we basically sat back and watched the whole thing go to pot.”
Rafferty explained that the goal is to get people to park in the downtown parking decks, which, for the most part, are free for the first hour. “What we really need to be doing is making moves to get people to park in the decks and do away with roadside parking completely because it’s just not sustainable,” Rafferty said.
What would take the place of street side parking if the spots were to be removed? Rafferty said it would pave the way for bike lanes and wider sidewalks, two things that would encourage more foot traffic and benefit local businesses.
“Part of the reason that the city has stepped up their efforts to enforce street side parking was to stop people from wanting to pull up and park for eight hours,” Rafferty said. “Those parking spaces are for people wanting to come shop and do business and leave.”
Rafferty said that people who live and work downtown need to park in nearby parking decks and walk the rest of the way to work.
As for the money that people put into the meters, even the money that was made during the recent overpriced meters mishap, is supposed to go into the city’s general fund. However, as Rafferty alluded to, parking fees are by no means a money maker for the city.
“All of that money goes into the general fund,” Rafferty said. “The big mystery question is, when something generates revenue, a portion of that should go back into paying for that division.”
“Does that happen? Money should go back to them so they can repair, fix vandalism, but I can’t find out if that is actually happening,” Rafferty wondered, adding that she has asked the mayor’s office for clarification but has received no answer.
Efforts to reach April Odom, the mayor’s public information officer, were redirected to Judge Andra Sparks, the presiding judge in Birmingham. He did not have an answer to how the funds collected at the meters are used.
To pay or not to pay
For those who don’t want to pay their parking tickets, the question of whether or not a warrant will be issued for them is mired in confusion.
Sparks said that when parking violators do not pay and miss their court date, the standard procedure is to issue a warrant for their arrest.
“We send those people a notice to appear in court,” Sparks said. “If they don’t appear in court we can issue a failure to appear warrant. That is a regular process for any city. A failure to appear means the police can come get you. But when it comes to parking tickets we’re not trying to send the police out after people. There is a delicate balance there.”
Sparks, however, did not give a direct answer to the question of whether or not people are rounded up and arrested for unpaid parking tickets. The city prefers getting people to pay through collection efforts rather than issuing warrants.
“I would say they are sadly mistaken,” Sparks said of those who believe they don’t have to pay their parking fines. “Sometimes the dawning of awareness happens at a very inopportune time. I would tell them they need to be very cognizant when it comes to violating a city ordinance and not paying that ticket.”
The language in the law about whether a parking fine is a criminal or civil offense is unclear, Sparks said, which means issuing a warrant for every unpaid parking ticket logistically does not make sense.
“We could definitely use more teeth in the law,” Sparks said. “The law department, as I understand it, is working on that. That will definitely help with how we can collect on some of these fees that go unpaid. The mayor has voiced his desire for us to be more aggressive when it comes to parking issues, and in order to do that we have to have more teeth in the law. He wants us to be able to collect a lot more money.”
Sparks said that typically every person that comes downtown has a car, due in part to the lack of public transportation available to the surrounding areas.
“I don’t think Birmingham is experiencing anything that other cities in the country don’t experience,” Sparks explained. “To put it simply, there are just not enough parking spaces for all the cars downtown.
“There is always going to be some trouble with that. That’s why we use parking enforcement to regulate that. Some people are going to take advantage of that, the same ways they will everything else. The way businesses are affected by it is when people abuse it. We all have to feed meters. It’s just the way it is.”
Tuscaloosa has experienced similar problems with their parking situation in the downtown area. James Woodson, a Tuscaloosa city attorney, said that they have begun to crack down on parking fines and have even begun efforts to rectify the state laws regarding how municipalities can prosecute unpaid tickets.
Currently, Woodson said, he is working on state legislation with provisions for municipalities to boot or tow cars that have unpaid tickets.
“But the question then becomes is it a civil or is it a criminal issue?” Woodson said. “If it’s a criminal offense, you are going to have to serve an individual person. You can’t put a ticket in the windshield.”
Currently there are no cases that set a legal precedent in the question of how to deal with unpaid parking tickets in Alabama. Woodson hopes to see some kind of legislation passed next year.
“There [are] no cases to look at because no one wants to jump through all those hoops over a $15 ticket,” Woodson said. “We have people who owe thousands, and people start to get real concerned over that and sorting that out.”
“The employees are getting the tickets,” Woodson continued. “A lot of the times it’s because they don’t want to walk a few blocks to work. It probably costs cities more to have this kind of parking control than they could ever collect, especially once you pay the salaries of people out there writing tickets. It’s by no means a money maker.”
Park at your own risk
Because of the lack of available parking in some of Birmingham’s entertainment districts, people have experienced situations where their cars are towed from lots where they thought it was okay to leave their cars.
Often aggressive tow companies have proven them wrong. One of the most notorious locations for towing parked cars is the Chick-fil-A in Five Points South.
Brannon Neal was working at Cosmo’s Pizza in Five-Points South one evening last year. It was his first day on the job and he was using his boss’s car to deliver pizzas.
Finding nowhere to park, he left his car at Chick-fil-A knowing that he had another delivery to make and he would only be parked for about five minutes. When he returned, his boss’s car had been towed.
“I was only inside for a couple of minutes,” Neal said. “I can’t believe they had time to tow me. They must’ve been waiting around the corner with a tow truck.” Neal kept his job, despite having his boss’s car towed on his first day.
Birmingham resident Kim Wilcox told a similar story of her car being towed.
“This happened during the weekend of Artwalk a few years ago,” Wilcox recalled. She explained that she had parked at Pale Eddy’s, a place on Second Avenue where she had parked for years without incident.
“I had no idea my car had been towed until after 10:30 p.m. when Artwalk’s first day was over,” Wilcox said. “Luckily my boyfriend had driven his truck instead of riding with me.”
After making several phone calls and being redirected a few times, she was able to locate her car. “We drive over to the lot where it’s being held and my boyfriend paid for it since I didn’t have the money at the time,” Wilcox said. “He points out that on the receipt that he was given that it was towed at 4:55 pm, five minutes before it would have been completely fine to have parked in that lot.”
Robertson, who lives and works downtown, believes that in order for Birmingham to truly have a vibrant downtown district the parking situation must be addressed.
Aside from fixing the public transportation system, Robertson offered another solution.
“I think that if you are a resident you should be able to have access to a parking pass or something like that,” he said. “It’s just ridiculous that the city insists on writing these tickets that no one really pays. But if they offered a parking pass, I bet you they could generate more revenue that way than just ticketing people constantly.”
“For a while it was kind of like a chicken and egg situation,” Robertson continued. “You couldn’t have businesses come downtown because no one lived here. And no one lived here because there wasn’t anywhere to work. But that has reached a tipping point, and I think we are all aware of it.
“But if Birmingham is going to reach its potential, I think the people here deserve more. We deserve to have access to public transportation and not be subjected to peeling tickets out of our windshields every day and being punished for living and working here.”
For further reading on Birmingham’s parking situation, see WBHM’s “Birmingham’s Broken Parking Meters” article here.