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Maryland resident Dennis F. McCarthy has a gripe plenty of D.C. residents have heard before. On a Saturday in late June, McCarthy pulled his Ford Explorer into an open, legal parking space in front of the old Woodies building, at 11th and F Streets NW. When he returned to his car, he found one of those ghastly pink parking tickets affixed to his windshield. “Parking in a bus zone,” read the charge on the ticket.
McCarthy took a second look at the position of his car; the bumper protruded 5-and-one-quarter inches from the signpost. “I measured,” says McCarthy.
That kind of persnickety ticketing was supposed to have disappeared two years ago—even when the unlucky target is a soulless suburbanite. On June 9, 1998, then-Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett ended the 90-tickets-per-day quotas assigned to the District’s 100-odd parking enforcement officers. Obsessed with that daily goal, the white-and-blue-clad pad carriers had terrorized motorists across the region. Along the way, they had raked in around $40 million each year for the city’s treasury and even drawn admiring glances from managers in other revenue-hungry cities.
“It seemed like they had a parking officer for every meter,” says At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, who will hold a hearing on parking enforcement in October.
Barnett’s quota-killing gambit aimed to end all the madness. Ticket writers would stop preying on the poor soul who parked illegally for two minutes while dropping off the dry cleaning. Serpentine lines at the parking-adjudication commissariat would shorten. And the softer hand of parking enforcement would signal a moratorium on the reflexive hostility to the middle class for which the District had become famous.
Pieces of the master plan have indeed materialized. “We’re not getting those kinds of complaints anymore,” says Deputy Administrator of Parking Services Norma Mapp, referring to allegations of cutthroat ticketing.
Great. But look at what the new policy has cost. Ever since Barnett took office, in January 1998, ticketing revenues have fallen through the floorboards. In fiscal year 1997, revenues from the program were nearly $38 million. In 1998, amid the quota dumping, that figure fell to $28 million; it was $25 million in 1999. And, according to Cheryl Edwards, a spokesperson with the CFO’s office, the quotaless parking drones are on track to pull in slightly over $17 million this fiscal year.
Time to call back the goon squad. Put the quotas back in place. Prey on the lousy scofflaws.
If control board Chair Alice M. Rivlin has drilled city leaders on one governing priority, it’s that we have a revenue problem in the hundreds of millions of dollars. There are a few oft-mentioned ways of closing the gap: get more money from Congress, a goal of D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton; attract 100,000 new residents, Rivlin’s favorite solution; or lure more businesses to town.
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They’re all chimeras. Congress won’t even study proposals to solve the city’s revenue shortfall, let alone pony up funds to make it go away. And D.C. won’t reach a population of 600,000 again until the school system figures out how to pay teachers and bus students to school.
That leaves parking tickets. Remember: The quota-motivated goons regularly turned in $40 million annual performances when D.C.’s economy was sputtering in the early and mid-’90s. Imagine the numbers they could generate these days, with a steamrolling economy and a mayor committed to a “gold standard” of municipal performance. Sixty mil per year? Seventy?
LL fairly salivates at the payoff: With parking enforcement at full throttle, the council could afford to extend LL’s tax cut from .5 percent per year to, say, .65 percent. Woohoo!
Stung by years of constituent complaints about parking enforcement, city leaders reject any bottom-line perspective on ticket writing. “I don’t think we should use parking enforcement as a revenue-raising tool,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose.
Ambrose’s dictate has trickled down to the parking-enforcement bureaucracy. “We adhere to a customer-service policy,” says Mapp, who is putting her foot soldiers through role-playing exercises, not to mention “stress training.” “We encourage volunteer compliance, and where compliance hasn’t occurred, we will write a ticket. We’re just trying to be more customer-oriented.” Fabulous policy, depending on who you define as the customer. Is it the lazy SUV owner who won’t circle in search of a legal spot, or is it a guy like LL, who can’t see oncoming traffic around the corner because the SUV is illegally blocking his sight lines?
Don’t blame Mapp. After all, she is carrying out the mandate of city officials, starting with the once-mighty Barnett, and she has a difficult balancing act to perform. “The intention of the program,” says Department of Public Works spokesperson Linda Grant, “is to promote traffic flow while at the same time balancing the interests of residents who need to be able to park near their homes.”
The problem is that the current balance benefits the wrong constituency. In response to complaints from politicos like Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, parking enforcement is landing with renewed vigor in outlying neighborhoods, where commuters have gobbled up spaces near Metro stops. Pink-slipping those bastards is a good idea—but heightened neighborhood enforcement also nails legitimate, duly registered D.C. motorists whose neighborhoods have simply gotten too crowded to accommodate all the cars in legal spaces. The result is the same early morning cat-and-mouse game between residents and parking enforcers. “I’m still getting complaints from people in the neighborhoods who are being ticketed unfairly,” says Ambrose.
The folks who aren’t getting ticketed unfairly—McCarthy’s story notwithstanding—are the hundreds of thousands of out-of-towners who regularly flood downtown streets. According to Grant, 750,000 vehicles from the ‘burbs pile into the city each workday. “They’re particularly concentrated downtown,” says Grant. They’re the folks who used to pad D.C.’s annual $40 million ticket take, and they’re the ones who have recently left a $20 million sinkhole in the same account.
Congress won’t let us tax those motorists’ income at its source. So why not try for their windshields?
In his decade of service on the D.C. Council, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil has distinguished himself as a guy with a short attention span for public affairs and a spotty attendance record at council hearings. That reputation no doubt lingered in the thoughts of Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen when she received a letter from Brazil last week.
Brazil was proposing a joint hearing between his Judiciary Committee and Allen’s Human Services Committee to plumb the “legality and propriety of the excessive severance package” accorded to John Fairman, former CEO of the Public Benefit Corp. (PBC), which runs the embattled D.C. General Hospital. Brazil also proposed looking into whether “waste and criminal abuses are responsible for the $90 million in cost overruns” racked up by the hospital in recent years. The PBC’s board is now approving cost-cutting measures in a desperate attempt to save the institution that provides nearly 40 percent of uncompensated care in the city.
The participation of the Judiciary Committee in the council’s PBC investigation, Brazil argued, was critical on account of the “likelihood that fraud, collusion or criminal conduct are at the heart of the horrendous deficits.”
In her reply, Allen made clear that she’d sooner conduct joint hearings with David Duke than with Brazil. “To include the Judiciary Committee in this matter would represent a significant expansion of your committee’s jurisdiction,” wrote Allen in a July 27 letter. Allen noted that she had already scheduled a hearing on the matter for Sept. 27 and argued that investigations by the federal General Accounting Office and the D.C. inspector general will suffice for now.
And just in case Brazil didn’t think the brushoff was personal, Allen wrote, “[Y]ou may also be unaware of the fact that I serve on a PBC Collaborative consisting of members of the council, PBC Board of Directors, the control board and representatives of the Executive Branch. The Collaborative is devising a reform plan to submit to Congress.”
Ever the community politician, Allen notified Brazil that she’d be “willing to hold a joint hearing with you on the Metropolitan Police Department’s performance in Ward 8.”
* Incumbents have traditionally had trouble tagging young, upstart opponents with negative labels. Newcomers, after all, have yet to do things like succumb to special interests and say stupid things in front of the television cameras.
In the Ward 4 council race, however, five-term incumbent Charlene Drew Jarvis has a live issue with which to bludgeon 29-year-old opponent Adrian Fenty: his voting record. On the stump last month, Jarvis asked how Fenty could ask Ward 4 residents to vote for him when “he himself doesn’t take his own civic duty seriously.”
Jarvis was referring to Fenty’s failure to cast a ballot in six of the 10 D.C. elections that have occurred since he registered as a voter in March 1992. “Board of Elections and Ethics data show that the young man has failed to vote 70 percent of the time in elections,” said Jarvis in a July 24 interview with LL.
Sensitive about being portrayed as a negative politician, Jarvis noted that she had “not mentioned it that often” in her routine campaign events. At a Tuesday night forum held by the Ward 4 Democrats, however, Jarvis pounded Fenty on the issue over and over. “When there was an opportunity to vote, he wasn’t there,” Jarvis declared. (According to Board of Elections and Ethics spokesperson Bill O’Field, Jarvis has voted in every recent election except the May 2 presidential primary, when she joined the 92 percent of city Democrats who stayed away.)
Fenty acknowledges that he “can’t get around” his record of electoral truancy but manages a lame rationale for the behavior. “If there’s any excuse, it’s that when you see people like Jarvis and Arrington Dixon running time and again, you want to see new people out there at the polls,” says Fenty. CP
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