Parking fine raises prove effective

You may have noticed more open spots in downtown Athens over the past year – and fewer citations on those cars already parked there.

It’s been just over a year since the Athens Mayor and Commission decided to make certain changes to the downtown parking situation.

In May 2009, the ACC Commission approved raising the fine for an expired meter from $3 to $10.  The penalty for funding expired meters was raised from $5 to $15.  These changes, the first of their kind in Athens since 1984, went into effect July 1st of 2009.

Citation penalties, however, were not the only fees that were changed.  Metered spaces located in the downtown were raised from 25 cents to 50 cents per hour.  The Clarke County Courthouse deck and the parking deck on College Ave. also saw increases from 75 cents to $1.50 per hour and $1 to $1.50, respectively.

While some local citizens may not have approved of increased fees, Laura Miller believes the changes were appropriate then, and have been effective since their introduction.  Miller is the Parking Director for the Downtown Athens Parking System, part of the Athens Downtown Development Authority.

“The increased fines have worked to accomplish our goal of creating turnover for the parking spaces downtown,” said Miller.  “We are issuing fewer citations, which means the higher fines have caused people to comply with the parking ordinances.”

Before the rise in fines and fees, Athens’ were among the lowest in the Southeast, according to a 2007 county audit.  Mayor Heidi Davison agrees that it was time for a change.

“The meter fees [downtown] had not been changed in 25 years, which is ridiculous,” said Davison.

Some were concerned with the amount of local citizens and college students using the spaces for cheap all-day parking, allowing fewer individuals to use the same spots for shopping at local businesses downtown.  Davison says this was a key reason for her support of the changes.

“Fines were too low to change behavior,” said Davison.  “Spaces were being used by folks not for shopping.”

Miller is glad to report that these changes have, in fact, affected citizens’ decision on when and where to park – and how long they stay in these crucial spots.

“Overall, [these changes have been] better for the retail businesses,” said Miller.  “Customers are able to find a place to park more easily than prior to the fine increases… Business owners have told me that their customers are better able to find parking now that people are complying with the time limits.”

New “Pay and Display” machines have also been introduced downtown within the last month.  According to Kathryn Lookofsky, the Downtown Development Authority Executive Director, these new machines provide users with three payment methods: coins, dollar bills and credit/debit cards.

The new machines, which are solar-powered, have not only made life easier for those parking downtown, but also those in charge of enforcement.

“[The new machines] are convenient,” said Davison.  “They remove a lot of clutter from the street; they are easier to repair and adjust for changes in fees.”

Miller added “the machines will also be effective in providing us with valuable information, such as peak parking times, most heavily utilized parking areas, and a computerized audit trail of transactions.”

While many experts agree the machines have been a success, as with any unfamiliar system or tool, there have been some mix ups.

“So far, the most common question from users is, ‘where is the receipt?’” said Miller.  “The receipt is white, and after it is printed, it is dispensed behind a white plastic door, which must be raised to remove the receipt.  Some people can’t see the receipt, so they think it’s not there.”

Regardless of any problems that have come with the transitions, local authorities seem pleased with the progress of the new laws and machines.  However, this issue has not been completely laid to rest.

“Future plans are to evaluate [the situation] on an annual basis the prices, fines, effectiveness of the Pay and Display machines, and make adjustments as necessary,” said Miller.  “For example, if the hourly price to park at a meter is too high, we will have an overabundance of supply.  If it’s too cheap, we will have too much demand.”

Regardless of supply and demand, those little yellow citations now cost more green, and have been effective in cleaning up the downtown parking situation.

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