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Cover Story

Pay to park


In virtually any city of respectable size, there will likely be a parking meter. The further away from the downtown corridor you get, the less likely you are to see them due to the increase in residential parking and businesses with parking lots, but most downtowns are full of them. Des Moines is no different.

For as many parking meters as there are in the city — 4,000, according to the Department of Traffic and Transportation — it seems reasonable to expect that the city makes a tidy profit off the little buggers. Turns out, not so much.

“It has never been intended to be a profit-making proposition,” Traffic Facilities Administrator Mike Berry said of the city’s parking situation. “It has always been intended to break even.”

The whole point of the parking meters, Berry went on to say, is twofold. The first is to help regulate parking downtown. Metered parking keeps people from camping out in the good spots: 55 percent of the city’s parking meters have 10-hour limits so people who work downtown can feed it and forget it. But Berry says those are located primarily on the edges of the downtown core. The closer in you get to the good stuff, the shorter the times become. So if you’re looking to lock down one of the spots around municipal buildings or between the Des Moines River and 10th street, you’re either going to run out every two hours to plunk in more money, move or get ticketed.

“There is right at $100,000 per month collected from parking meters.” Mike Berry, Traffic Facilities Administrator

“There is right at $100,000 per
month collected from parking meters.”
Mike Berry, Traffic Facilities Administrator

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If you choose the first option, you’re going to feel the difference in your change drawer, too. The city sets the pricing on the meters to further encourage turnover in those prime, downtown spots: paying for an hour of meter parking in the East Village will run you 60 cents. By Gateway Park, it’ll jump to 75 cents. But park on Court Avenue, and that rate becomes $1.25.

The second reason the meters exist is to help pay for parking. The City of Des Moines operates more than just those individual meters. It also maintains the downtown public parking ramps and needs a way to pay for the heating, electricity and upkeep for them. Fees collected from just the parking ramps themselves do not come up to nearly enough, so that is where the revenue from the parking meters comes in. Their contribution to the cause is not insubstantial.

“There is right at $100,000 per month collected from parking meters,” Berry explained. “Those revenues pay for all the heating, maintenance and employee costs. There are no charges to the city’s general fund for upkeep of the system.”

The money that does not go into keeping the parking ramps operating smoothly is used to maintain the parking meters themselves. Standing in the open means they have to stand up to everything Iowa’s seasons can throw at them, along with the daily wear and tear brought on by the city’s residents. As you might expect, a typical parking meter is designed to take a beating and keep working, but the miles pile up, and nothing lasts forever. This is a source of one of the few headaches associated with Berry’s job.

“Generally, the parking meters last about seven years,” he said. “We are able to afford replacements about every 10.”

One of the drawbacks to a completely self-sustaining system is that the income dictates the schedule.

“We do what we can,” he continued. “We don’t keep junk on the street, but it is hard to find the money to do the repairs that we need to do.”

Metered history

The first parking meter was used in Oklahoma City in July 1935. The first parking ticket was handed out a month later. In the years that followed, as more and more cities hopped on the idea, various legal challenges arose regarding their legality. The greatest challenge to the potential of parking meters has been financial. Courts have long established that cities cannot raise money for themselves through non-voter-supported means. In short, if it makes the city money, and the voters did not approve it, then it amounts to an unauthorized revenue tax and is not legal. Many cities around the nation challenged their parking meters under this legal test. Only one (Sioux City in 1940) was successful in having its parking meters ruled illegal.

Eventually, a precedent was established, and parking meters were allowed everywhere in the country, provided they were run as close to breaking even as possible. Or, as the California Law Review put it in 1947: “A municipality may validly install a system of parking meters upon its streets and exact a fee for parking as long as the amount charged bears a reasonable relation to the service rendered and the cost of rendering it.”

Which is why, in the ensuing years, the cost of parking has increased with inflation, but remained relatively low in most areas. As any city decides where to set its parking fees, it walks a fine line. The fees need to be high enough to cover the costs of keeping everything clean and running properly, but not so high that people just stop using the meters or vandalize them out of spite. It is for that reason that city parking divisions have learned to be masters at efficiency.

Keeping lean

“I’m the only full-time person paid by the parking system,” Berry said.

Berry has been the administrator for the Department of Traffic and Transportation for the past 19 years. He’s been with the department in some capacity or another for more than 30, and with the city for 33, so he knows all about getting the most bang for his buck and keeping everything moving as smoothly as possible on a limited staff.

“There’s one assistant and a fellow in charge of cleaning the parking ramps,” he continued. “But they are part-time.”

For other employees, like the attendants who work in the ramps themselves, the Department of Traffic and Transportation employs a contractor, ABM Parking. The only other workers associated with the parking system are the Parking Enforcement Officers (PEOs), of which the city employs two.

While the PEOs are technically under the purview of the Des Moines Police Department, their salaries are not paid through taxpayer money like the rest of the police force.

“All of their costs are paid for out of the parking system, too,” Berry explained.

And what of the money those officers help generate? Parking tickets are the bane of every business commuter and tourist the world over. Few things are as annoying as needing to park downtown for a few minutes then discovering that you do not have any change on you. Or realizing you have sat at Java Joes for four minutes longer than expected and have to make that walk of dread back to your car, eyeing your windshield for the telltale white envelope.

Nobody likes Parking Enforcement — colloquially referred to as “meter maids.” The name was first coined in the late 1950s to describe the first, all-female crew of Parking Enforcement Officers hired in New York City. The name stuck and is now used derisively to describe PEOs around the world, regardless of sex.

Des Moines’ PEOs, however, have a relatively easy time of things. You can chalk that up to “Iowa Nice,” if you like, but another contributing factor is the relatively low cost of a parking ticket in the capital city.

Parking fines in the downtown core run $15, which is light in the face of cities like Minneapolis ($42), Seattle ($44) and New York ($65). As such, when you see a PEO pull away from your vehicle, it might give you a fleeting moment of annoyance, but it is rarely the kind of thing you have to adjust your weekly budget to cover. And yet, for as low as the fees are, the city pulls in a hefty amount in parking violations. And it is not going down.

According to numbers provided by City Clerk Diane Rauh, Des Moines’ Parking Enforcement Officers collected $1,071,460 in the fiscal year 2012. The next year that number jumped to $1,216,293, and in fiscal year 2014 it was $1,448,357. So, on average, the amount pulled in by parking tickets each year outstrips the amount actually brought in by the meters themselves.

Additionally, unlike the revenues from the meters, parking fines don’t fall under the same “unauthorized revenue tax” requirement. This means that while the quarters you pop into the meter go right back into the parking authority, the dollars you pay on your parking tickets do not. At least, not for long.

“The revenue that is generated by the tickets that they write does come back to the parking system,” Berry explained. “It is counted as revenue, but is then taken back out of the system and put into the city’s general fund.

So if you are looking for a way to ensure that your parking money helps to pay for public services like the fire or parks departments, there it is: Save your quarters and take the ticket.

The City of Des Moines has invested in multi-space parking meters that accept credit cards after holding a series of public meetings to discuss residents’ needs and wants.

The City of Des Moines has invested in multi-space parking meters that accept credit cards after holding a series of public meetings to discuss residents’ needs and wants.

One space or two?

The vast majority of Des Moines’ parking meters are of the traditional, single-space variety. Dual-space meters have been around since the 1980s, and electronic, multi-space meter boxes have been available since the late 1990s. But Des Moines has stayed with the single-space meters until the last decade.

When the last round of old meters needed to be replaced, Berry looked at what was available and thought that a newer, dual-space model might be a viable option. On paper it makes a lot of fiscal sense: A meter that can cover two spaces means you need half as many meters in the first place. What Berry did not factor in, however, was the public reaction.

“We’ve had a lot of feedback that people don’t like the double space meters,” he admitted. “What we found is that people don’t read, then they just drop money into a double space meters and it doesn’t go where they want.”

The biggest issue stems from the fact that the double-space meters look pretty much exactly like their single-space brethren.

“I used one for the first time the other day,” said Des Moines resident Natalie Matthews. “It caught me off guard because I didn’t even think about it being for two spaces. And you have to select your space before you start putting money in. If you do it out of order, you’re just giving the city your money.”

And so, like any good business that deals with the public, Berry listened. The city stopped ordering the double-space meters and has now started investing in multi-space meters that accept credit cards. This time, Berry has made sure to vet the new machines.

“What we’ve ended up doing is having public meetings,” he said. “We brought these meters out and actually demonstrated them to folks. We asked for feedback, and through those public meetings, we decided that people were looking forward to using the new style machines.”

“We want to make Des Moines a destination,” he continued, speaking to the new machines’ practicality. “When someone comes here from Clear Lake or Sioux City or whatever for the wrestling tournaments or for meetings, they often have to park downtown. People don’t always have two quarters in their pocket. But they’re going to have a credit card.”

Berry knows that no matter what decisions he makes, he is not going to please everyone. But his job is a vital one, and he knows that anyone in his position has to approach their job kind of like a sports referee: you know you have done your job well, when nobody realizes you are even there.

“When people leave Des Moines, we want them to have had a great time,” he said. “We don’t want them to have had to worry about where they’re going to park.” CV


What if I don’t pay?

Meter parking can be a pain. You don’t always know how much time you need, you don’t always have enough change, and sometimes you can’t get out and feed the meter again in time. Park downtown often enough and odds are good that you will get a parking ticket eventually. Des Moines has it easy — our tickets are $15. But what happens if you don’t pay it? Here’s the time line, courtesy of City Clerk Diane Rauh.

Tickets that are 30 days unpaid are assessed a $5 late fee.

After that, things go kind of quiet, and you might think it’s been forgotten and you are in the clear. Not so. After 130 days, vehicles registered in Polk County are forwarded to the Polk County Treasurer to place a stop on license plate renewal. Need new tags? You have got to pay those fines first.

Also after 130 days, all vehicles with unpaid citations are forwarded to the Iowa Department of Revenue to place a hold on the Iowa Income Tax Refund of the vehicle owner. In other words, if you still don’t want to pay, the State will just take it from you on tax day.

Finally, vehicles with four or more unpaid citations are placed on the Tow List, which means a habitual offender is risking racking up towing and storage fees as well as any unpaid fines, just to get his or her car back.

If you live outside of the state of Iowa, you’re not subject to any of the above, except the $5 late fee. The bad news is that since they can’t take your taxes, the State just forwards you to a collection agency, and your credit takes the hit.

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