Cars parked at expired meters — or otherwise parked illegally — are nearly three times as likely to wind up with a ticket on the windshield than they were five years ago.
The increase in parking citations is courtesy — if you will — of the efforts of the Lexington Parking Authority. The quasi-government agency was developed in the summer of 2008 to manage parking spaces and collect fines, taking over for the city's financial department and police.
Ticket writing is handled by LexPark, the Parking Authority's enforcement arm.
About five years into the program, the Parking Authority has established a self-sufficient organization that writes more tickets, makes more money and provides the city with a more concentrated effort to pursue scofflaws. The money from fines has been used to modernize and improve parking services and help repair aging garages such as the Annex Garage downtown, which is undergoing a $3.1 million restoration.
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According to a Herald-Leader analysis of data obtained through an open-records request, LexPark employees have written 210,962 tickets since its creation in July 2008 to Jan. 31, 2013 — the last full month data was available. That is more than double what Lexington police wrote in years prior.
The Parking Authority collected about 81 percent of those fines totalling about $2 million, according to the data. The agency ends each fiscal year with about $800,000 surplus, said Gary Means, executive director of the Parking Authority.
"The Parking Authority has been a real value to our community," said George Myers, an Urban County Councilman who is working with Means to increase fines for some offenses. "It has really shone light on what our true parking situation is downtown."
Still, there are shortfalls. LexPark is limited in the ways it can pursue many violators, specifically those with fewer than three unpaid citations.
LexPark employees deploy "the boot," a large immobilizing device that locks onto a tire, on parking scofflaws with three or more unpaid tickets. However, there are no consequences, except for the occasional annoying letter, for people who get one or two tickets and decide not to pay.
About $1.1 million in parking fines has gone uncollected since mid-2008. Most of the outstanding fines are against people who have one or two tickets.
Another troubling matter: parking citations are a flat rate. Parking at an expired parking meter nets a driver the same $15 penalty someone would get for parking in a handicap spot or in front of a fire hydrant. Fines for those types of violations are heavier in cities such as Cincinnati, where blocking a fire hydrant costs drivers $250.
Myers said he'd like to see that changed.
"I kind of think that's a no-brainer, and I would be happy to be the one to make that motion," he said. "When you travel around to other cities, parking in a handicapped zone nets a much higher fine than parking 12 inches off the curb."
Means acknowledged there are some deficiencies, but he said he is pleased with the work that has been done. His crew — three full-time employees, two part-timers and 25 contractors from Tennessee-based Republic Parking Services — has raised the bar.
Prior to the Parking Authority, patrol officers wrote parking tickets when they weren't responding to more pressing calls. Violators paid fines directly to the city, but there was little reason to do so because of poor record keeping and lax enforcement.
Out of 72,130 tickets written by officers from 2004 to mid-2008, nearly half — 32,457 — went uncollected, according to a 2007 Herald-Leader analysis.
The Parking Authority's new collection methods have whipped Lexington's compliance rate more in line with other major cities. Officials from both Louisville and Cincinnati said about 80 percent of parking fines are collected there. Means said that is the industry standard.
When the city ran things, money from fines and fees could be used for other budgetary needs, said Bill O'Mara, Lexington's commissioner of finance.
The loss of income is not a major blow, though, because the city did not collect much to begin with due to funding and staff shortages, O'Mara said.
"When the city had it, the assets were underperforming. It was marginal what kind of return they had on an annual basis," he said. "The Parking Authority has been ... making money each year that can be reinvested in parking."
In addition to operating costs and improvements to metered parking and garages, the Parking Authority also uses the money to pay for technology, such as solar-powered parking meters with credit card slots and a LexPark smartphone application that, among other things, allows users to feed meters remotely.
Means wants to make a bigger dent in the 19 percent of unpaid fines, but he said parking enforcement is a fluid process. LexPark will never collect 100 percent of the tickets it issues, Means said.
"There's just that element of folks who will always take a risk, who say 'Eh, I can't find a spot so I'll just park it on the yellow curb,'" Means said.
Means is exploring other ways to up the ante against parking scofflaws, including investing in new technology.
The Parking Authority recently spent $45,000 on a mobile License Plate Recognition system, essentially a set of cameras that attaches to the roof of a car.
As a LexPark employee drives around town, the cameras read license plates of cars parked on the street. A message pops up on a laptop's screen when a vehicle is eligible for the boot, even if the parked vehicle has time left on the meter.
Before, "we didn't really have a reason to run a check on a car that was parked legally, so a scofflaw might not have been noticed," Means said.
Meanwhile, Means is preparing a report to the Urban County Council detailing what would be required to raise parking fines for more severe offenses.
The Parking Authority would need city council members to create a new ordinance that increased fines for safety related parking offenses, such as parking in front of a fire hydrant or in a handicapped zone.
In Lexington, fines for all violations jump from $15 to $30 if not paid in 10 business days. A local ordinance prohibits fines higher than $100.
Myers said he thinks the council would be open to raising that limit for safety-related offenses. He said he has visited cities that have tiered parking fine structures up to $300 for the most serious offenses.
"I'm not saying we need to go that high, but when you see people parking in spots reserved for disabled people ... it's imperative that they have that parking space saved for them," Myers said.
On a larger scale, LexPark could inspire people to pay outstanding tickets by tying parking offenses to vehicle registration renewals, Means said.
In Ohio, for example, residents with three or more unpaid tickets cannot renew their tags unless they pay their outstanding fines, said Jack Walsh, Cincinnati's treasurer.
Creating a similar system in Kentucky would require a "monumental effort" to link each of Kentucky's 120 counties with the state's Division of Motor Vehicle Licensing, Means said.
It also would require legislation, said Jim Isaman, spokesman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. No one has taken the initiative to create such a system.
However, Means said he and the heads of other parking programs in the state would support it.
"The Jefferson County people, my counterparts over there, are interested in it and we would be as well," Means said. "And I think people who don't get citations, or who pay their citations, would be in favor of it as well."
When the Herald-Leader examined the city's data in 2007, there were numerous instances of poor record keeping and lax enforcement that essentially made parking free for those who chose not to pay fines, or were not aware of them.
The city was missing names and addresses for about half the people to whom it had issued citations, hampering its ability to send delinquency notices. Only one notice went out per year. And the city did not pursue fines for out-of-county residents.
"The two cents for the (address) look-up and the postage was enough of a reason not to do it," Means said. "And, yes, postage is expensive. But when you're going after a $15 or $30 fine, it just makes sense to do that."
Some record-keeping problems still exist. According to the new data, 35,838 tickets issued since the Parking Authority took over don't have the offenders' names included.
About 7,200 don't have addresses listed, and 467 tickets list "walk-in" in the address field, meaning a person walked into the LexPark offices and employees did not collect his or her information.
However, LexPark has made overall headway by taking simple steps that the city never did. They included:
■ Mailing out monthly delinquency notices.
■ Turning repeat offenders over to a collections agency.
■ Using the boot on repeat offenders.
■ Using the state's DMV to look up addresses of out-of-county offenders.
The Parking Authority also has improved communication with companies that own lots of vehicles, such as rental services and car dealerships.
In 2007, a spokeswoman for Enterprise Rent-A-Car said it had not received any notifications of the more than 30 tickets that were outstanding against Enterprise customers.
Now, "we receive tickets from the agency. If we need additional information for a ticket or want to see if we have anything outstanding we have a direct contact we work with at LexPark," Enterprise spokeswoman Lisa Martini said.
In 2007, the Herald-Leader found dozens of scofflaws who racked up multiple unpaid parking tickets. Since the Parking Authority has been in place, most repeat offenders keep their debts paid down.
Peter Kiely, co-owner of McCarthy's Irish Pub, has received 148 tickets since 2007, more than anyone else in the city. All of them have been paid or appealed, according to parking records.
Kiely said he thinks the Parking Authority is too strict at times. But in his opinion as a business owner and downtown resident, many of the Parking Authority's changes — such as increased enforcement and higher fees — have been positive, he said.
"Even though I hate getting tickets, it's easier to find parking downtown," he said.
Top Parking Offenses in Lexington since July 1, 2008
Violation Number of tickets
Expired meter 84,280
Parking prohibited by signs 21,773
OT-2HR ZONE 18,531
At yellow curb 17,343
Residential parking permit 15,154
Source: Lexington Parking Authority
Life cycle of a Parking Citation
Day 0: Parking ticket placed on windshield. (A boot is placed on the car if its owner has at least three unpaid tickets.)
Day 3: Courtesy letter mailed to vehicle's owner
Day 10: Fine increases from $15 to $30. (If the ticket is the third unpaid citation, a "scofflaw letter" is sent out notifying the car's owner it is eligible to be booted.)
Day 15: First delinquent notice mailed
Day 30: Second delinquent notice mailed. Letters continue to be mailed periodically until fine is paid.
Day 120: If customer has three or more parking citations, total amount is turned over to collections agency.