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That parking ticket you got in downtown Sacramento? It may have been the meter's fault

How to pay for Sacramento meters remotely

The city's new parking meter app lets you pay for more time on meters using your smart phone. Previous time limits will no longer apply at a select group of meters around the Crocker Art Museum. The zone for extended time meters will be phased in
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The city's new parking meter app lets you pay for more time on meters using your smart phone. Previous time limits will no longer apply at a select group of meters around the Crocker Art Museum. The zone for extended time meters will be phased in

Downtown Sacramento's new "smart" parking meter system suffered two technological glitches last year that caused the city to issue several thousand erroneous parking citations, an internal city review has determined.

In a report issued Thursday, City Auditor Jorge Oseguera said he doesn't believe city parking officials were intentionally issuing inappropriate tickets, but said the city's new modernization program has run into problems and that city oversight of the new system needs to be improved.

Oseguera notably found a spike in citations issued in late 2016 and early 2017 caused by malfunctioning sensors on parking meters. In March 2017, the apparent peak of the problem, city officials ended up dismissing more than 500 citations that likely were related to sensor errors causing the meters to expire prematurely.

The sensors are attached to meter poles and are supposed to clear out time when it detects a car has left a space.

That was followed by a problem with the city's new ParkMobile app in October, when the wireless system that supports it went down and prompted citations for drivers who had paid. The city ended up dismissing 300 tickets its officer gave out that month.

The city auditor, who was asked by the City Council in November to look into complaints about erroneous citations, will present his findings to the council next week. He said his result is preliminary.

He intends to conduct a full audit of the city's parking system and issue more detailed findings and recommendations at the end of the year.

In his report, the auditor noted that it takes the city six months to issue a ruling when a driver contests a parking citation. He called it "poor customer service" that also makes it hard for the city to figure out quickly if it has a recurring problem.

He said his office also noted that the city is getting far more calls of failed meters during peak winter months. He said the city should check to see if the meters' solar-powered batteries are getting enough of a charge that time of year.

He alluded to the potential for further problems.

"There will be other unanticipated complications that will arise, that could result in citations issued when not warranted," he said.

The city embarked several years ago on a parking modernization program downtown, replacing older meters and pay stations with 4,500 "smart" meters in 2014 and 2015, as well as extending hours that parking is metered.

The new meters take credit cards, and drivers also can purchase time by using the ParkMobile app that allows them to add extra time remotely, at a higher price, after the meter's normal time limit has expired.

The extended meter hours now require drivers in some parts of downtown to pay meters weeknights until 10 p.m. and in a section of midtown until 8 p.m.

The number of citations issued overall at city meters declined in 2016 to 67,896 from 78,448 in 2015, but increased in 2017 to 84,320.

Oseguera said that appears to be related to extended meter hours and the opening of Golden 1 Center, which brought more drivers downtown at night.

Oseguera said in an interview he could not say how many erroneous tickets the city gave out as a result of various glitches because the city's data collection system is incomplete, but his report indicates the number likely was several thousand between late 2015 and late 2017.

City Public Works Director Hector Barron, who supervises the city's parking management team, said in a letter issued Thursday that he concurred with Oseguera's findings.

Barron said parking officials last year changed their policies to require enforcement officers to double-check whether a driver had made a mobile payment that for some reason was not reflected on the meter face.

Barron said the city plans to buy handheld computers with wireless capability for code enforcement officers that will make those checks easier by giving them "real-time data" showing whether a motorist has paid, even if the meter light is red.

Downtown drivers continue to report meter problems. In particular, Patrick Mulvaney, owner of Mulvaney's restaurant on 19th Street, complained to city officials this month that some customers and patrons of other local businesses have been hit with errant parking tickets recently, causing some to vow not to come downtown any more.

Barron also acknowledged in a letter to Oseguera that the city takes too long to review the validity of its citations when drivers challenge them. He also said the city needs to do a better job of dealing with broken meter complaints.

Oseguera's review came at the request of Councilman Steve Hansen, who had received numerous complaints from constituents in October. The issue was first highlighted in the Sacramento Business Journal.

Hansen on Thursday said he believes city parking officials have not purposely tried to increase ticketing, but he said the review does show that parking officials need to improve their system's performance. He noted that plenty of people want to use the smart meter technologies, including smartphone payments.

"It is clear that these new technologies aren’t the golden solution," he said, "but we have seen a huge increase in people wanting to use the app and smart meters, so as we roll this out it should work. We need these systems working 100 percent of the time."

And, if they don't, he said, the city needs to sign tougher contracts with private technology vendors that make it easier for the city to extract financial penalties.

City parking manager Matt Eierman said he welcomed the report, and he hopes it gives drivers more confidence that the city is moving forward with a more modern system.

"Modernization is not a one-week project," he said. "It is important to note we have been working hard to modernize our system since 2013 and we are not done (but) we are almost to the finish line."

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