No More Parking Meters!

Free parking would give downtowners a break and boost business.

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If you think phone companies, pay-day lenders, and airlines are bad about hidden fees and add-ons, wait until you see how Memphis city government plans to gouge citizens for more bucks.

For want of a nickel to stick in a parking meter, violators face more than $200 in fines and court costs, plus a mark on their driving record that could boost their insurance rates. Either that or they can spend half a day and take their chances in Ticket Hell, otherwise known as the courtrooms in the basement of 201 Poplar.

Parking meters are a vestige of the days when downtown really was the "central business district" of Memphis and home of the headquarters of three banks, a brokerage firm, and law firms, retailers, and professional offices that have since moved away. With the exception of the University of Memphis, your chances of getting a parking ticket anywhere else in Shelby County are nil. When I called suburban officials to ask if they had meters, I might as well have been asking if they had brothels or casinos.

"No, and the likelihood of having them in the future is slim to none," said Germantown city administrator Patrick Lawton.

Metering downtown is wildly inconsistent. In addition to the broken ones, there are no meters on most of Front Street and Main Street south of Beale or north of the convention center and none in HarborTown on Mud Island. Eat lunch meter-free at Gus's Fried Chicken on Front, but bring some change and keep an eye on your watch if you eat at Lenny's a few blocks away.

The revenue-hungry Memphis City Council and the Wharton administration's response to this is to add more meters in more places and jack up fines. A $21 ticket (it was $5 back in 1996) has to be paid within 15 days to avoid Ticket Hell. Contesting a ticket means going to court, where the ticketing officer's appearance is mandatory — a double waste of time better spent. Otherwise, the violator is hit with a judgment of $186.75 in additional fines and court costs. No-shows get a mark on their license.

So, just pay the ticket within 15 days? Easy to say for those who don't share a car with family members, use a car to get around downtown for work, or know the frustration of jammed meters, parking outside the lines, insufficient change, and coping with the pedestrian and trolley mall and tell-it-to-the-judge police officers.

We are targets of opportunity. And if new meters that accept credit cards are installed, it won't be long before hourly rates are raised, hours of operation are increased from the current 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and more personnel are assigned to enforcement. The brunt of this hidden tax will be borne by citizens and visitors who patronize downtown, where some muggers carry weapons and others carry ticket books.

City Court clerk Tom Long was more sympathetic than defensive when I met with him Monday to get an explanation. Long, who has been in office for 18 years, says he is whipsawed by the state legislature and the council telling him how to do his job.

"They are looking for revenue any way they can get it," he said. "What's going to happen is people are not going to come downtown."

Long's office collects one third of fines within one year and two thirds within five years. He keeps a "Top 100" list of violators who owe $577 to $2,111 each in back tickets. Until this year, tickets were "abated" (forgiven) and purged from the system after one year.

"Our collection rate was higher before the media publicized that," he said. "As of this January 13th, no tickets are abated."

City council members, led by Councilman Bill Boyd, have zeroed in on uncollected fines and see a revenue windfall of more than a million dollars a year. This is the same council that couldn't find seven votes to crack down on tax breaks for corporations and developers. Boyd knows better than anyone how much property tax is abated, because he used to be the Shelby County assessor. He could not be reached for comment.

Downtown Memphis is not downtown Chicago or Nashville or some other city with tall buildings and actual tenants. Its pockets of prosperity are offset by blocks of blight. Businesses that choose to locate in downtown get a tax break in hopes that they'll generate sales taxes and jobs. Individuals deserve a small break too.

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