More fines, more parking, more business

On July 1, 2009, Athens-Clarke commissioners applied a formula that was simple enough: increase the potential punishment for an infraction, and fewer people will commit that infraction.

The infraction is parking meter violations. The punishment is fines.

Almost 10 months later, the ACC Commission is seeing dividends from the application of this basic concept. Parking citations, according to Athens Downtown Development Authority Parking Services Director Laura Miller, have decreased by almost 20,000. Miller and ADDA Director Kathryn Lookofsky both credit the new fines for the decrease in citations.

Additionally, many citizens, particularly downtown business owners, initially criticized the measure for placing an unfair burden on proprietors and customers. However, most have now conceded that, as of March of this year, they have seen an increase in customers and that their customers are happier with the parking situation.

The Commission first visited this issue on March 3, 2009. It voted to implement increased fines for both parking at an expired meter and feeding quarters into a meter after it’s been expired. Parking in a space which has an expired meter would be punishable with a fine of $10 (up from $3). Feeding an expired meter would draw a $15 fine (up from $5).

The move was instigated partly because a 2007 county audit found downtown Athens’s parking rates and fines at the time to be among the lowest in the Southeast. Many officials felt that the lack of substantial penalty encouraged college students and employees of downtown establishments to park for excessive periods of time. This took parking away from customers of downtown shops and restaurants.

The ADDA originally requested increases to $6 for parking at an expired meter and $12 for feeding an expired meter. Six commissioners were not convinced such small increases would compel people to obey the law more closely. One of the six was David Lynn, who said, “$3 is not doing the job, and I don’t think $6 would. But I suspect $10 would get people’s attention.”

George Maxwell, Kathy Hoard and Harry Sims voted against the increases. Maxwell was particularly concerned about the extra burden the measure would place on court witnesses and jurors. He acknowledged that fines needed an increase but did not agree with a move that severe.

In the public sphere, the fee hikes faced mixed reviews.

In an editorial, the Athens-Banner Herald called the parking fees and fines for downtown Athens “laughably low.” A study by the ACC Auditor’s Office indicated that fees for expired meters in Chapel Hill, Chattanooga, Decatur and Savannah averaged $12.66. The editorial went on to say that the new fines would create more turnover to free up more spots.

Many local business owners lashed out against the move. At least 70 of them signed a petition asking the Commission and Mayor Heidi Davidson to reduce fines and increase the parking time limit to two hours. Masada Leather and Outdoor owner Irvin Alhadeff, who serves as president of the Athens Downtown Business Association, called the combination of high fines and short time limit “lethal.”

After the vote, ADDA also requested an increase in time limit.

District 1 Commissioner Doug Lowry said he did not know the ADDA wanted an increased time limit. He added that the Commission would have voted on the measure had they known.

The Commission voted on April 7 to grant an increased time limit but kept the fine amounts steady. Only Lynn and Maxwell opposed. Lynn said allowing people to park longer will continue to crowd downtown spots. He suggested that people who need long-term parking relegate themselves to parking decks.

Now nearly a year into the new policies, increased business and customer satisfaction seem to be fringe benefits spurred by greater conformity to parking procedures. When interviewed in March of this year, Alhadeff admitted that “Business has been great since this change” and that he’s had “an increase in customers.”

Alhadeff also commented that his customers are more satisfied with the availability of spots. “I’ve had customers come in and say, ‘I found space right in front of the store,’” he said.

Rusty Heery, owner of Heery’s Clothes Closet and Heery’s Too agreed that the new fines have “been successful in getting a lot of employees off the street parking meters, which is a good thing.” ADDA records indicate that the number of people requesting long-term spots in decks and surface lots has doubled.

Doug Lloyd, system administrator for UGA’s Enterprise Information Technology Service, said the increased availability of parking spots “is really noticeable,” which has compelled him to visit downtown more often. “It’s absolutely encouraged more frequency for me,” he added. He used to visit downtown for lunch about once every three months, but now goes two or three times a month.

He used to have to walk 15 to 20 minutes from the Boyd Graduate Studies Research Center on the corner of East Campus Road and Cedar Street. He also mentioned that it is difficult to catch buses during lunchtime. Even when he did opt to drive, he would often find no available spots and wound up parking in the College Avenue Deck, several blocks away.

With business owners, customers and government officials happy with the results, the measure has created a true win-win-win situation.

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