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The Nation | DISPATCH FROM SILVERTON, ORE.

Clock Is Ticking for Penny Meters

Coins: Town is phasing out its 1-cent parking in favor of digital devices, dealing one more blow to the endangered piece of change.

September 03, 2002|DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SILVERTON, Ore. — Even here, in a town with a covered bridge and a painted tribute to Bobbie, the beloved dog that found his way home from Indiana in 1924, time is money.

Silverton's broken penny-parking meters are being replaced, one at a time, with digital ones that accept only nickels, dimes and quarters. Many residents ignore the pun and gripe: It's too much change.

"They're cranky and protective, but that's OK," said City Manager Bryan Cosgrove. "It's local tradition."

To residents of this agricultural center about 40 miles southeast of Portland, the penny-parking debacle symbolizes the ease with which cherished aspects of their life could disappear. To them, Silverton's values are represented as much by the meters as they are by the low crime rate, clean streets and fresh pots of blooming flowers that hang from immaculate gas lamps.

Melia Ragone, the owner of Window Box Quilts on First Street--a road lined with functioning penny parking meters--said tourists who pull up outside and discover the machines bound into the store feeling like they've already discovered a bargain.

A penny buys you 12 minutes. A dime gets you two hours.

"We asked the police chief how long it would take to lose all of them, and he said 10 years," Ragone said, making it clear that a decade in Silverton could pass in the blink of an eye.

In fact, the City Council's decision to let the copper-plated coin die a slow, unheroic death in the ashtrays of motorists pulling into parking spots appears to be the latest evidence that Silverton is being dragged--kicking and screaming--into the modern world.

First there was the brouhaha last spring over the old noon whistle, a foghorn on a pole in the city hall parking lot that also doubles as the volunteer firemen's signal.

A few citizens and city hall workers complained about the volume, and a measurement showed that the daily bleat exceeded noise levels mandated by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Rather than risk being sued by someone who claimed they'd suffered hearing loss, Cosgrove silenced the horn until officials could figure out a way to make it comply with guidelines. That brought accusations from many of the 7,500 townspeople that Cosgrove was moving too fast.

By the time the penny parking decision was announced this summer, many residents were phoning city hall and spitting out epithets like "money-grubbers."

But Cosgrove insists the decision is not profitable, just practical. No one makes parts for penny meters any more, and many of the 160 installed here back in the 1940s are busted.

If it's any consolation--and many say it's not--Silverton joins some other cities that will, in the next few years, lose all of their penny parking meters to ones that accept only silver.

Already watching their dinosaur meters become extinct are Carrollton, Ohio; Fairfield, Iowa; Billings, Mont.; Tionesta, Pa.; and Hinsdale, Ill.

Programs to slowly phase the old meters out may be trumped by federal legislation to ditch the penny altogether, through price rounding to the nearest nickel. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), who wants only limited production for penny collectors, hasn't found a co-sponsor for the bill. But it still threatens penny advocates like Mark Weller, executive director of Americans for Common Cents, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of 10 national and local charities that depend on the penny for thousands of dollars in donations each year.

"The fact that there are still some of those meters in place proves our point that the penny still matters, and rounding things to a nickel is a real losing venture for the consumer," Weller said.

Consumer concerns aside, a few folks in Silverton think the celebrated penny parking meters really have brought joy to only two women--the parking enforcement officers.

"They get you if you're over two minutes," said Richard Ridderbusch, co-owner of the Birdhouse Restaurant. "This is a real hot debate in town. Everyone's got an opinion about it."

Parking is monitored Monday through Saturday, and Officer Christina Rudelis says she sometimes accepts tourists' $5 fines in cash, as long as they seal the envelopes themselves.

On a daily basis, she writes about five tickets, but remembers a Saturday when she wrote 37.

And if Rudelis is already mourning the penny parking, so are some of Silverton's younger residents--who like to stay one or two cars ahead of the law and put coins into nearly expired meters.

Jamon Wanker, a 25-year-old glassblower who was raised here, fished for a few coins and fed some meters as he walked one recent afternoon with a friend. Reflecting on the nostalgia of penny parking meters, Wanker was reminded of another melancholy subject.

"I miss the horn," he said.

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