It didn’t occur to us to feed coins into the meter, even to my husband who is usually very careful about such matters. This was a holiday, right? A national, U.S. government-designated holiday.
We came out after 9 a.m., and all the cars lining Locust Street, and parked in metered spots, had tickets on their windshields. So, did we, and these tickets would cost us $35 each. I quickly glanced at the meter, at the top, windowed area where the little red “expired” flag pops up. (This is the meter, pictured above.)
In that area, in black letters, it read that the meters are in operation daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., except Sundays and holidays.
I pulled away and saw the parking enforcement officer up the street. He was getting back into his cart after placing yet another ticket on another car's windshield. I rolled down my window and asked, “What’s going on? Why are you handing out tickets? It’s a federal holiday.”
He said something about how it’s “not a city holiday.”
I went home, called the City of Walnut Creek offices, and heard that the city offices were closed “in observance of the holiday.” I called the Police Department non-emergency number and asked to speak to the supervisor in charge of parking. The clerk told me that the supervisor was not in the office today.
“Because it’s a city holiday?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
I asked why, if it’s a city holiday, the city had its parking enforcement officers out, writing tickets. The clerk informed me that, in fact, the city designates six holidays per year as worthy of being "meter holidays." Six holidays per year, unlike, for example, the U.S. government which in 2009 will observe 10 holidays.
The clerk added that the city-designated meter holidays are listed on each parking meter.
I missed that during my cursory glance at the meter. All I saw was "except Sundays and holidays," which to me seems pretty open to interpretation.
But, being the Crazy gal that I am, I couldn’t let this one go. I had to know if I missed something, so I headed back downtown and returned to the scene of my crime: the meter on Locust Street in front of the Container Store.
After looking around the meter, I could see that, yes, it has a sign on its side that lists the city's designated meter holidays: New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day.
So, legally, it appears, we’re screwed, my husband and I. We will have to pay those $35 tickets. So will all the other people who mistakenly assumed that a national holiday like Presidents Day would apply to metered street parking in Walnut Creek.
But wait. For my part, and for all those others who who received tickets in downtown Walnut Creek today, I have to say that the sign listing the city's six metered holidays reads a bit like the proverbial fine print in a contract. A quick glance at the meter, which is what I think many motorists would give it, would lead you to think you’re in the clear on Presidents Day.
It also strikes me that the city's meter signage and its own staff holiday policies present unclear and inconsistent messages. The two different signs on the meters themselves offer two different interpretations of when you do and don't have to feed coins into the meter. Meanwhile, the City of Walnut Creek decided that Presidents Day was significant enough to close its offices--and to give the city’s parking supervisor the day off. So, shouldn’t it give us citizens a holiday--a parking holiday--as well? It seems that the city's parking meter policies should align with its own policies regarding staff holidays.
(By the way, I will e-mail a copy of this post to the city’s parking department. It would be interesting to hear the supervisor's response, if the supervisor even bothers to respond. I won't expect a reply today--because the supervisor is on holiday!)
The backdrop to all this is that the city is in serious financial trouble. The budget numbers for 2008-10 are pretty grim. The city is facing a $3.4 million deficit this fiscal year, and a $5.2 million gap for 2009-10.
It all has to do with a down economy, a drop in revenues from sales tax due to slow retail sales, and a steep drop in tax revenues from auto sales.
Another culprit in Walnut Creek’s woes? A decline in parking-related revenues.
From the city’s Progress Report on the 2008-10 Operating Budget: "Parking meter revenue is projected to be approximately $11,000 below what was estimated for the budget 2008-09 and 2009-19. … Further, the amount of revenue received from parking fines [like the $70 my husband and I will be soon paying] is lower than projected. Due to the downturn in the economy, fewer visitors to downtown (as indicated by the drop in sales tax), and a decline in the collection rate experienced for fines, most of the anticipated aggregate parking system increase has not been realized."
The city estimates a parking-related revenue decrease of $844,000 for 2008-09 and $844,000 for 2009-10.
The city certainly helped lessen that pain a bit on President’s Day with the tickets it handed out to my husband, me, and other motorists. And, with the city's budget challenges, I can see why the city's usually aggressive parking enforcement department was even more motivated to get out today and ticket people.
After revisiting the scene of my crime, I took a short cruise down Locust Street. It looked like about half of those parked had made the same assumption that my husband and I had made. A reasonable assumption, I continue to argue. I could see those little red flags on the meters where these cars and SUVs were parked.
I could also see the parking enforcement officer in his cart, with its blinking yellow lights, cruising up and down the street, just waiting to pounce.