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Parking ticket forgiveness on the rise in Duluth

Feeling lucky after getting away with a few expired parking meters last year? Don't expect your luck to last.

In 2017 the city of Duluth issued 20,000 fewer parking tickets than usual, a welcome surprise for many rule-bending motorists. It was more of a happy accident than an experiment in altruism, however.

"The reason for that drop is basically that we were short-staffed," said Mark Bauer, parking operations specialist with the Duluth Police Department. "A number of circumstances led to lower staffing," but the department is back to full strength today.

So for those living on the edge — of crosswalks and meters — the era of forbearance is over.

Still, the drop in tickets did coincide with a new policy to be more forgiving, especially on first offenses. The city dismissed 13 percent of tickets in 2017, up from around 8 percent in previous years, according to data requested by the News Tribune.

"I hesitate to go so far to say your ticket will be dismissed if it's your first ticket," Bauer said. "However, we have implemented a little more leniency in ticket dismissals."

Such a policy naturally favors those who have the fewest chances to receive a ticket or learn the local rules — tourists. But it also gets to the heart of what parking enforcement is trying to do: promote safety and access.

No conspiracies

Residents and visitors aren't always convinced Duluth's parking enforcement has their best interest at heart. The operation is self-sustaining, meaning enforcement expenses come from enforcement revenue, though just a quarter of that is parking fines

Still, it leads to some conspiracy theories that Bauer is quick to dispel.

"We don't have quotas; we're not trying to generate more revenue for the city; monitors don't get bonuses for the number of tickets issued; and we're not hiding in the bushes," he said.

Between 2013 and 2016 the city issued around 55,000 tickets per year. That consistency is "just where we end up," Bauer said. "There isn't a push to reach that amount."

There certainly doesn't need to be. The city's parking fund is consistently in the black, bringing in nearly $1 million more than expenses in both 2015 and 2016. Today the parking fund has a cash balance of more than $4 million — leaving plenty of room to be more forgiving with tickets.

"Profit drives a lot of what the private (parking) entities do, and in the public realm that's not the bottom line," Bauer said. "It's really meant to be driven by public service."

To reinforce that public service aspect, parking monitors are getting new uniforms to soften their public perceptions.

"It's almost like why don't we get a Darth Vader helmet and a cape?" Bauer joked of the old black polos. "We're trying to present a friendlier image."

Common good

Parking is a simple transaction that can have emotional consequences. People often feel like they are the "victim" of parking enforcement, as one visitor wrote to the News Tribune after the Tall Ships Festival in 2016.

"I think it was disgusting for Duluth to promote this festival and then prey on visitors for not knowing which side of the street to park on," wrote Brock Robinson of Green Bay.

This kind of complaint is common, not just in Duluth but everywhere winds whip at tickets in car doors and on windshields.

"Drivers seem to only notice parking management when it makes their lives more difficult," writes industry software developer Gtechna. "This is backwards, though, as proper parking enforcement and management actually makes people's lives easier, and improves the general experience of being in a town or city immensely."

Parking is a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons — where people will act in their self-interest ahead of the common good — because there are very few great parking spots for a vastly larger contingent of cars. Enforcement is meant to correct this age-old economic problem by putting limits on parking and punishing those who take too much of this common resource or use it incorrectly.

That's what Bauer tries to remind people.

"Everything we do in the parking division boils down to safety and access," he said. "If we can achieve that without issuing a ticket, if we can have a conversation, then we'll do that."

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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