Sacramento fails on parking meters. Why is it so hard?

Smart parking meters line N Street near the state Capitol. Sacramento’s city auditor is investigating a spike in the number of erroneous tickets for expired meters.
Smart parking meters line N Street near the state Capitol. Sacramento’s city auditor is investigating a spike in the number of erroneous tickets for expired meters. Sacramento Bee file

It’s one thing to pay higher parking meter rates to help foot the bill for the Golden 1 Center, which residents and visitors to downtown Sacramento have been doing grudgingly for nearly two years.

It’s quite another to wrongly get ticketed for expired meters – at best facing the annoying process of getting a citation dismissed, at worst paying $42.50 they shouldn’t.

So it’s absolutely necessary that the city auditor get to the bottom of a troubling spike in dismissed tickets for expired meters – about 3,900 through October, nearly double the number over the same period last year.

As first reported by the Sacramento Business Journal, there are another 3,000 appeals of tickets for expired meters pending with the city. The total value of erroneous tickets is expected to top $200,000 by year’s end.

Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents downtown and who requested the review, has it right. “It is really a matter of trust. If the city can’t enforce its parking regulations correctly, the public can’t trust us,” he told The Sacramento Bee’s Tony Bizjak and Ryan Lillis.

The city is raking in more cash from its parking meters. In 2015, it started installing 5,800 smart meters that accept credit cards and let motorists stay beyond the time limit, for a premium price. In December 2015, meter rates increased from $1.25 to $1.75 an hour, and hours were extended later at night. The city is counting on an additional $5 million a year from meters and city-owned parking garages for about 10 percent of its debt payments on the new arena.

Through the end of October, the city had issued more than 71,000 citations for expired meters, on pace to be 32 percent more than 2016. More than 5 percent of these tickets have been dismissed this year, compared to less than 3 percent in 2015.

City officials acknowledge there was a problem for 16 days in October when a wireless outage affected some people who used the city’s ParkMobile app that allows payments by smartphone. That led to 364 immediate dismissals of parking tickets and letters of apology.

While it appears the problem goes beyond that short period, City Manager Howard Chan’s office says the number of erroneous tickets is still a tiny fraction – less than 1 percent – because the number of parking meter transactions has increased by more than 730,000 since 2015. Officials also say some dismissals are because the city showed leniency on tickets right after Golden 1 Center opened in October 2016.

Also, the city expects fewer problems once it buys new hand-held devices for meter readers, allowing them to double-check if a meter is expired even if it is wrongly flashing red, as some motorists have complained.

City Auditor Jorge Oseguera says his staff will test parking meters, learn how the system works, interview parking managers and check with comparable cities – all to figure out whether it’s an isolated glitch as city officials say, or a more significant flaw in the system.

Unless auditors are able to quickly determine it was an on-off in October, the review will likely go well into next year. If the audit uncovers a broader problem, it will recommend changes in process or controls.

“I don’t want to provide anything half-baked to the council,” Oseguera told a member of The Bee’s editorial board.

A quick conclusion would be nice, but it’s more important to definitively make sure parking meters aren’t ripping people off. Sacramento taxpayers and motorists deserve no less.