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Study: City’s parking system stuck in neutral

October 13, 2018

STAMFORD — Anyone who’s wondered how the city manages parking might be glad to know that so did the traffic chief, hired last year.

A few months after James Travers took the job, he contracted a company to assess parking operations. Now he wants to follow up with an audit to pinpoint deficiencies before taking steps to modernize management of parking in city garages and lots and along the curbs.

“We have to move the department into the 21st century,” Travers recently told members of the Board of Finance. “We’re behind and we need to catch up.”

The $22,000 assessment by Dixon Resources Unlimited examined 2017 and concluded the city needs stricter procedures for handling $3 million in annual parking revenue:

Meter money is collected openly on the streets.

There is too much opportunity for money to be stolen, with little chance of detection.

Access to the coin room at City Hall, where meter money is counted, is too free. Money is stored openly.

No bags or other containers should be allowed in the coin room and employees should not enter with personal money on them. They should wear lab coats without pockets.

Dueling computer systems make it difficult to verify revenue collection amounts.

In 70 percent of cases in which parking tickets are voided, the reason is “officer request,” which is too vague and out of line with industry standards.

The assessment concluded that meters, pay stations and other equipment is old and should be replaced, and practices should be overhauled.

The department has six full-time traffic violation officers, two special officers who are sworn police officers, and one parking foreman, according to the study. There are three technicians who repair meters, collect the money and deliver it to the coin room.

Technicians do not keep logs, assessors reported, and were observed using scraps of paper to record the collection date, meter number and zone before transporting canisters to the coin room.

Soggy silver

In the coin room, officers count money on rotating shifts, taking them away from enforcement. Payroll data shows traffic officers on average earn about $54,000 a year in base pay plus about $20,000 in overtime.

Counting is time-consuming, made worse by the condition of the rusted canisters, which are often wet inside and cause the aged coin sorter to malfunction, assessors wrote.

That caught the attention of the finance board’s Audit Committee, which received a summary of the assessment.

“We have traffic violation officers who are probably paid $70,000 a year, and then on top of that have full benefits and pension, and we have them counting wet quarters — that’s how they’re spending their time?” board Chairman Richard Freedman said during a committee meeting. “I am dismayed, frankly, to see that that’s how this office is managed.”

Freedman also questioned the city’s agreement with the Stamford Town Center mall, which operates its garage and collects parking fees. The city tickets violators and collects fines, but returns most of that money to the mall. The city’s share is the late fees from motorists who fail to pay meter fines on time.

“The whole mall parking arrangement sounds like it’s less than optimal,” Freedman said.

OT aplenty

That makes a finding in the study worse, he said. Assessors wrote that officers enforce parking in the big mall garage on foot, which requires regular overtime shifts on weekday evenings and all day Saturday.

“We have built-in overtime to check parking compliance at the mall ... I checked the budget and there’s $115,000 in overtime every year,” Freedman said.

Assessors recommend the city convert pay stations to identify vehicles by license-plate number instead of parking-space number. Officers can then drive through with an electronic license-plate reader and monitor the mall garage within an hour.

Since the assessment, the department purchased two license-plate readers, Travers said. It previously had one.

No one is sure how many meters there are because the city does not keep an inventory, according to the study. It estimates there are 57 digital pay stations, not including the mall, and 600 to 700 individual coin meters.

The rusted pay stations do not work properly, and the coin meters are so old the city has trouble finding parts to repair them, assessors reported.

Slow towing

Traffic officers are efficient in using a license-plate reader to identify parking scofflaws but completely inefficient when they must order a tow, the study showed.

Only the two special officers can authorize tows, so traffic officers must wait for them. If neither special officer is working, nothing gets towed. If the violator returns while officers await a tow, the special officer drives the person to City Hall to pay the fines and then to the tow yard.

Assessors recommended that the city use self-releasing “smart” boots instead. The city has since contracted a vendor and will start using the devices in the coming weeks.

Other problems include management of delinquency notices for parking scofflaws, which are issued inconsistently, and sometimes not at all. The Springdale and Glenbrook rail station lots have waiting lists of three to four years, yet they are often half-empty.

Stamford should consider increasing parking fees and fines citywide, assessors wrote. Last week, Mayor David Martin proposed a number of increases, which the Board of Representatives will take up this month.

The assessment offered good news — the city’s collection rate on the 78,000 parking tickets issued annually is 80 percent, better than the industry average of 72 percent. About 5 percent of tickets are appealed, which is in line with the industry average.

But Stamford scores high on number of appealed tickets that are voided. The 59 percent, which is near the top of the industry range of 30 to 60 percent.

The city should set standards for appeal decisions, which appear subjective and can pose liability “if violators who previously paid their citations without appeal learn that other citations have been voided as a courtesy,” assessors wrote.

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.

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