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Parking in Chicago ...

John Van Horn

In 1997, the city of Chicago collected $66 million from parking citations, related fees and fines. In 2005, it collected $161 million. "That's not bad, considering we wrote about the same number of citations in the two periods," says Department of Revenue Director Bea Reyna-Hickey.
Parking Today found all its questions answered without asking, as the dynamo who runs the department -- and hence the head of parking for the Windy City -- simply told her story without mincing words.
Department of Revenue? Reyna-Hickey explained that parking was put in this department because so much of its activity relates to revenue generation, and the city wanted to ensure that revenue was legally and properly collected.
So if you want a building permit in Chicago, you apply at the Department of Construction and Permits, but you pay for the permit at the Department of Revenue, which is responsible for collecting the money for more than 40 city departments. And the process seems to work.
Reyna-Hickey, who has been with the city since 1984 and the Department of Revenue since 1997, was appointed Director in 2000. She is the longest serving director in the past 25 years. "This can be an unpopular job," she says. "After all, we are tasked with collecting money, and few people like to be asked to pay their dues."
But how can the amount collected go up so much when the same number of citations were issued and there hasn't been a great increase in charges? "It has to do with collections," Reyna-Hickey says. "Just because a citation is issued doesn't mean that it is collected. We have developed a multifaceted program for collections. There are a lot of carrots, but we carry a big stick.
"No one wants to balance the city budget on the backs of the parking public," she says. "However, we take parking citations seriously. If you get a ticket, and it is valid, you should pay the fine, period."
The city attempts to make fee-paying easier. "We give people the ability to pay on the Internet, by mail or at any of our six locations throughout the city. Once the citation goes past due, then we begin to apply pressure.
"We have offered an amnesty period where violators can pay their fines without the add-on fees. The tickets double in value when 60 days past due. We also have extensive payment plans for those who have a substantial past due amount (more than $500 in most cases). The payment plans are great. Over 64,000 people are on the plans. Payment plans help motorists avoid being booted and they get some relief by paying over a longer period of time."
There are other issues. Before automated citation writing was instituted, many were thrown out because of errors on the part of the officers. New automated equipment has virtually done away with this problem. "We have 100 enforcement officers that write parking tickets; however, the police and certain other officers can also write them, and they often don't have the automated system.
"Our booting program has had a great effect on parking revenue," she adds. "The number of boots has increased from just over 27,000 in 1998 to 48,000 last year. This is due to a couple of factors. First, we reduced the point where a person's vehicle is booted from five outstanding tickets to three. And second, we are using a new automated license plate recognition system.
"The system is attached to a patrol vehicle and cross-references license plates with a database as the officer drives through the neighborhood. When it finds a match, the patrol is notified and a boot applied. What's particularly great about this is that it works very well at night. Before, we just gave up after dark since it was so difficult for the officers to see the license plates."
Reyna-Hickey's department has begun a program of replacing most of its 30,000 single-space meters with pay-and-display. "The multispace machines have many advantages," she says. "One involves additional parking space; the other, increased revenue."
When meters are used, they are placed a specified distance apart and only one vehicle could park per meter. When P and D machines are installed, there is no such requirement. This gives approximately 10% more space on the block. "In the past, we had to mark the spaces for the largest vehicle. Now, people park wherever they can (as long as it is not posted 'no parking') and put a P-and-D receipt in their window. If a smaller car can fit into a small space, so be it. Our experience is that when people get used to the new system of unmarked spaces, they love it."
The other benefit she sees with the P-and-D machines is that there is no piggybacking. "People would find a meter that had time on it and use it. Now, parkers drive away with the receipts and everyone must pay. In addition, we have a 60% credit card usage. Parkers using their credit cards will put the maximum on the receipt, rather than think about how much time they really need. This is good revenue for the city."
The city is also considering pay-by-cellphone. "Our preferred method is to use a system that has a 'pager-like' device in the car. When they pay by using their phone, the device is activated and displays the amount of time left before a citation is written. This program is in a testing phase at this time."
"Our enforcement officers seem to prefer checking receipts rather than pay-by-space machines. We opted for P-and-D because we don't have to mark the spaces. We would have to use signs on posts because of the snow problem in the winter. In many neighborhoods, the merchants are using the sidewalks for cafes and the like. Removing the meters gives more room, and in some cases, it's what makes this activity possible."
Reyna-Hickey doesn't think off-street parking is the city's best role. "We used to have as many as 80 lots and structures. We have been privatizing them. If they are turned into commercial development, they mean a better neighborhood and, of course, tax revenue for the city. When they are controlled by us, they are tax-exempt."
There are 50 aldermanic wards in Chicago, and each one often has special requirements placed on the department. "We have instituted a parking review and are going ward by ward," Reyna-Hickey says. "We work with the alderman to improve parking in his ward. In some cases, residential neighborhoods have gone commercial and the parking has remained residential. In others, commercial areas have been turned into residential lofts, and the 'no parking' or 'limited parking' bans are on the streets. All these, plus the addition of P-and-D machines need to be reviewed.
"Since we are a full-fledged city department and not a division of another department, and I am at the director level, it enables us to have the visibility needed to effect changes at the council level," Reyna-Hickey says. "Not only can we resolve issues quickly, but I can get the ear of the people who make the final decisions and work closely with the aldermen and ensure that the public's needs are met."

Article Abstract from February, 2006




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