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Curbside Cash Cows

Parking meters yield a jackpot of funds for civic projects, or just to help balance the budget. But some merchants detest them almost as much as motorists do.

June 05, 1998|SUSAN ABRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A collection of antique parking meters stands in rows inside the Los Angeles Department of Transportation's meter repair shop, images from the city's past.

There is the original one-cent "Park-O-Meter" of the 1930s, next to the short-lived token dispenser "Golden Circle" of the 1970s. Several electronic meters from the '90s stand close by.

The designs have changed, as have the prices--from an hour per nickel in the 1940s to a quarter for 12 minutes in the 1990s. But, as it was in the beginning, parking meters and the fines for exceeding the time limit remain a big source of money for cities--and an enduring source of motorist annoyance and civic controversy.

In Los Angeles, revenue generated from parking fines, totaling about $86.5 million, comprises the seventh-largest contribution to the city's general fund, which helps support police, fire, paramedics, parks and recreation, and library services.

It's enough to finance up to 800 police officers and their supervisors or even all of the city's 64 libraries, said Keith Comrie, Los Angeles city administrative officer.

The nickels, dimes and quarters fed into meters go into a special parking revenue fund. Los Angeles collects about $26 million from the city's 41,000 meters. About $13 million of that goes into the fund, which maintains all parking services.

But whether electronic or mechanical, parking meters can still get a lot of people wound up. Just ask optician and Leimert Park merchant Ruth Nucholls.

While meters make a lot of cents for the city, Nucholls sees meters as making little sense. Six months ago, the city spent $800,000 refurbishing two parking lots and installing additional parking meters behind galleries, boutiques and cafes in Leimert Park, a popular area in the heart of southwestern Los Angeles' African American community.

Nucholls and some other merchants protested, saying the meters would drive away customers.

"When you have a business, the important thing in Los Angeles is that people patronizing the business know where they can park," said Nucholls, president of the 45-member merchants association. "The possibility of being ticketed deters from the area. We already had meters on the block, and we don't have large crowds."

Nucholls' complaint has been sounded in Los Angeles since parking meters were first installed on Van Nuys and North Hollywood pavements in 1949, along with fines for violators.

Los Angeles is not the only object of such complaints. Cities throughout Los Angeles County help cover their expenses with revenues from parking meters and fines from motorists who stay in the space after time has expired.

In Long Beach, money collected from the 450 meters in Belmont Shore, a popular beachside area, was used recently to widen sidewalks and repave streets.

Last year, the Long Beach City Council voted to increase parking fines for exceeding the time limit on meters from $17 to $27, and the fine for parking in a no-parking zone rose from $25 to $37. The fines were used to help offset a budget deficit.

In most cities, money generated from parking citations benefits the general fund, for police, fire, paramedics and libraries.

The highest fines are for violating disabled space restrictions. They range as high as $330 in Los Angeles.

Some cities, such as Burbank and San Gabriel, have no parking meters. Redevelopment funds, plus contributions from local merchants, support free public parking structures.

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But don't think motorists get off free. Both cities fine drivers for violating no-parking or limited parking statutes. Last year, Burbank collected $1,500,940 in fines.

San Gabriel recently increased its parking fines because "we hadn't looked at an increase in a few years," said Tracy Hause, the city's finance director. Fines went up $22 to $29.

Parking meters first appeared in Los Angeles County on the streets of Long Beach in the late 1930s. Even then, the devices were a source of controversy.

Los Angeles City Council members, considering meters for their city in the 1930s, ran into opposition from one of the most powerful political forces in California--the Auto Club.

Council members said the meters would reduce parking congestion. But the California State Automobile Assn. replied that meters were "promoted as a source of profit to cities" and that "it would be just as sensible to tax pedestrians so much a block for using sidewalks."

The controversy continues today, as can be seen in the argument in Leimert Park.

City officials point out that the meters have financed improvements to the parking lot, including new asphalt, fencing and lights. Rates are among the cheapest around.

But Nucholls said the improvements could have been made without the meters by assessing the 90 merchants in the area. Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who lobbied for the meters, said the lots are safer and cleaner than they have ever been.

"In order to maintain the lots, there needed to be a way to generate the costs," he said of the meters.

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