The city of Hoboken collected nearly $1 million more in revenue from parking tickets in 2013 than in 2012, according to records obtained through the Open Public Records Act and provided to The Reporter. The number of tickets issued shot from roughly 103,500 in 2012 to 127,568 last year, pulling in total revenues of $5,595,846, as compared to $4,661,166 in 2012.
When asked about the numbers last week, city spokesman Juan Melli said that they weren’t a fair measure of what’s been happening, saying that enforcement was lower in 2012 due to Hurricane Sandy and other matters.
The Hoboken Parking Utility is an autonomous entity that operates on its own budget separate from the city but gives a portion of its budget to the city budget. The HPU answers to Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s parking and transportation director, Jon Morgan.
Melli gave various reasons for the downturn in fines in 2012, but was unable last week to provide comparable figures from 2011.
“Various factors affect enforcement figures, including the fact that a large number of parking employees were out on disability in 2012, enforcement was temporarily eased in 2012 following Hurricane Sandy, and that the Parking Utility took over primary responsibility for double parking enforcement from the Police Department in 2013,” he said in an email on Wednesday.
“The city’s parking enforcement is prioritized to maintain clearance for public safety vehicles.” – Juan Melli
“The city’s parking enforcement is prioritized to maintain clearance for public safety vehicles, improve pedestrian safety, and to protect the limited on-street parking for residents,” he said. “We have had instances of fire trucks being delayed because they could not make turns due to cars parked too close to corners. Cars in or near crosswalks also impair visibility.”
But there is a financial incentive to handing out parking tickets. According to a recent presentation by the city’s Finance Director, Solomon Steplight, 23.8 percent of the HPU’s budget will be given to the city this year.
Will the signs ever change?
Visitors and residents of Hoboken have complained for years about what they see as excessive ticketing and its harsher cousin – booting – in this parking strapped city. Most streets are marked as resident parking on one side, visitor parking (with permit) on the other, and people without permits can park for up to four hours on the permit side. There are also parking meters in certain areas, and several city garages that allow the public to pay for parking. However, some of the signage is confusing, and some people think the booting for parking in the wrong place is too harsh.
In 2011, a Fox News investigative report exposed faults in some of the signs, mainly those on Hoboken’s parking spots that say “Permit parking only, all others four hours.” They lead people to believe they can remain in a spot for four hours without a permit, and then shift to a different spot. But actually, if someone parks in those spots cumulatively for more than four hours, even if they move their car, they can get towed away.
Now that the HPU uses computers and increased enforcement, they have logged people’s license plate number while they were parked at one spot and ticketed them if they were in another location four hours later.
Many people did not realize the four-hour limit is citywide. And even if one realizes this, there are problems. For the 2011 report, the FOX crew parked its van in Hoboken, happened to get scanned by a HPU van, and then headed off to Edgewater to do some shopping. When they returned and parked later, they were ticketed almost immediately.
At the time the report aired, Zimmer said the town would look at making the signs clearer, and 6th Ward Councilman Peter Cunningham, who chairs the council’s Parking and Transportation Subcommittee, echoed the sentiment in a letter to constituents in January of 2012. He wrote, “Lastly relating to parking and transportation, the current four hour rule will be tweaked. Currently the law says for anyone without a valid permit will have a four hour grace period after which they will be ticketed, booted, etc. The law does not say "grace period" per DAY, though it's implied … we're working on another solution that I believe will be more satisfactory in the end.”
But almost halfway through 2014, the signs and laws remain the same, and questions about changes to them have been met with unclear answers.
“We have hired a consultant to conduct a citywide parking master plan and that process is underway and will include community meetings where members of the public will have opportunities to provide their input,” responded Melli, when asked what would be done about the signs.
He added, “… the parking master plan will include a review of and recommendations regarding all existing parking regulations, signage and policies.”
Cunningham downplayed the effect that confusing signs have on ticket revenue.
“I haven’t yet been to a city in America where street parking signs are easy to understand,” he said. “I don’t know what the best solution is yet, but we’re meeting with the firm doing the master plan on Monday and that’s on the agenda of things to discuss.”
In an apparent disagreement of the statement that enforcement has not increased, Cunningham said he believed the HPU has become more “aggressive and proactive” in its daily patrols, which helps residents find parking.
“There are a limited number of places to park and the HPU is doing a better job of enforcement than they have in the past,” he said.
He said that one of his new ideas for easing the pressure on residents would be to reduce the number of patrols in the evening.
In June of 2011, the city’s then-parking director, Ian Sacs, mentioned that the city would also ramp up enforcement of those parking too long in metered spots, so that there is more turnover for shoppers and other visitors.
Booting too harsh?
Some residents and visitors have complained that Hoboken’s propensity to boot cars for parking in the wrong place is severe.
A CEO of a company based in Astoria, who was doing business in town, wrote to the Reporter last month to say that he found out that his car was booted shortly after midnight in Hoboken. He called a number, was given a code to unlock the boot, but the boot was broken. He said that when he called back, he was told the boot could not be removed until 8 a.m., forcing him to remain outside in cold temperatures all night.
“I was informed that someone would be there in 45 minutes,” he wrote. “An hour and a half later, after there were no trains out of Hoboken, I called and was informed that no one works between 12 a.m. and 8 a.m. and that I should wait inside the car where it was warmer. I called again wondering if no one works between 12 and 8 a.m., how my car was booted at 12:28 a.m.? This led to the advice for me to ‘just go find a hotel.’ This is great advice to someone from out of state visiting with a phone that is about to die...I have no idea where to find a hotel. I called again at 7 a.m., freezing cold.”
Melli said that boots are often removed overnight, and someone with an emergency can call the police.
However, last week, the CEO said he did call the police, and “They could care less.” He noted in an email followup, “I had parked to what the signs read as legally nonresident space. (The lack of clarity in signage and parking laws I assume generate immediate income for the city of Hoboken!)”
Several residents have complained about towing during Hoboken’s snow emergencies. One man said his car was towed from an emergency route shortly after the snow started falling one evening in January, and he got it back the next morning, with a bill of $274.20.
After contacting a local daily newspaper’s “Bamboozled” team, they were able to review the information and determine that the bill was “the result of mistakes made both by Hoboken and the towing company…As part of his research, he filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request with Hoboken for a copy of the contract with the tow company. The request was denied, with the city clerk saying there was no such document. That’s when [the man] contacted Bamboozled.”
Ultimately, the city acknowledged that mistakes were made. But the driver said that 100 other cars had been towed that day, and he wondered if the others were incorrectly charged.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer said in the article that she would like to hear from others who were incorrectly charged. Melli said, "The system may have had a bug which computed storage fees based on calendar days rather than 24-hour periods, but we believe it has since been corrected." As for mistakes by the towing company, Melli said in the story, "We will be investigating this and auditing our tow licensees.”
The towing company in question had a history of complaints about their practices.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org