St. Louis Parking
5:48 am
Fri June 27, 2014

Parking Study To Pave The Way For System Overhaul

The St. Louis Treasurer’s Office announced last week it has selected the Boston-based consulting group Desmen Associates to examine all aspects of the city’s parking division. According to Treasurer Tishaura Jones, the study is meant to be the basis for overhauling the system, which the office has overseen since 1951, but in recent years been bogged down by inefficiency, misconduct and outdated technology.

Her office has budgeted $50,000 for the study, but the changes she envisions down the road will require many millions more and take years to fully implement. Last year, the parking division collected $14.6 million in revenue with a system of roughly 10,000 coin-operated meters, 6 multilevel off-street garages, two street lots and roughly 150 employees.  

“We’re moving from the 19th century to the 21st century,” is a mantra that’s been heard often since she took over 18 months ago.

Jones has already taken steps in modernizing parking operations. In February, the office had four pilot parking sites set up in the Central West End and downtown that allow motorists to pay with cash and credit cards and communicate with users through smartphone apps. Some of those new meters are expected to be put in regular service this fall and Jones has said many of the meters in the city are likely to be replaced with similar technology that can accept multiple forms of payment.

Jones’ office has not provided specific details about the broader changes in store for parking operations or a timeline for when upgrades would be completed. A spokesperson for the Treasurer said the scope and scale of the overhaul will depend on findings from the study which concludes this October.

Switching Gears

The study is Jones’ latest effort to redirect the 31-year course of the office set by her predecessor, Larry Williams. While running for office in 2012, Jones campaigned on the promise of bringing greater transparency, efficiency, and accountability to the Treasurer’s Office. Since early 2013, that’s involved moving past a history of misconduct left over from her predecessor. Williams was accused of widespread nepotism in handing out jobs, hiring convicted felons, and paying “ghost” employees who didn’t show up for work. During Williams’ tenure,  a number of parking division employees were also caught stealing money from meters and parking lots or selling drugs on the job.

According to Jones, many changes have already been made to move away from the past. That's included consolidating the city's on-street and off-street parking divisions, cutting staff and adding management positions, but new technology offers the promise of even greater accountability to the public.

“All we can say is that from January 2, 2013 we are on a mission to improve the efficiency of this office.”

The treasurer's office is part of the the city's division of finance which is controlled by the comptroller. City Hall has no direct authority over the Treasurer's Office, but many Aldermen are eager to see changes under Jones' leadership. A portion of parking operation revenue goes into the city's general fund but the decision over how much is up to the Treasurer.

Frustration with the Treasurer’s lack of openness about her plans for parking operations led one alderman to call her recent efforts to clean house “just PR.” The aldermen declined to go on record explaining would be counterproductive to future cooperation between the board and the treasurer. 

Ward 16 Alderwoman Donna Barringer, however, said she believes St. Louis would be better off if operations were handled by City Hall due to the level of "dysfunction" that still exists in the office. 

But others feel it's too soon to criticize Jones' performance, including Ward 17 Alderman Joe Roddy. 

“I would be inclined to give the new treasurer the benefit of the doubt and provide her some opportunity to get up to speed,” he said. “There are a lot of legacy issues making it difficult for the office to make the changes that they would like to make.” Likewise, Freeman Bosley Sr.,  the committee chair of the Streets, Traffic and Refuse Committee expressed support for Jones’ efforts as she takes over from her predecessor.  “There’s nothing ever going to be done so well that nobody can’t find fault with it,” he said. 

Comprehensive Study

Desman Associates will look at revamping all aspects of the system including meter prices and placement, fines and fees for violations; how permit zones are drawn; towing and booting practices and system oversight. The firm will also be looking at best practices from other cities that could be incorporated into St. Louis' operations.

The study is to be the guide to the eventual overhaul which, once implemented, will make it easier for drivers to pay, and settle fines with the city, as well as make it easier to monitor what’s going on system wide.

“We’re looking at having an integrated system that will be able to tell us what’s going on with the resources that we manage,” said Jones, explaining what she expects technology upgrades should allow her to do in a year.

"I think that I should be able to, say, if I’m traveling somewhere, pull up on my iPad, and see how all of our operations are doing in real time. I can see how many cars are parked in our garages. How many cars are parked at our meters on the street, if any of those meters are near the point where they need to be emptied, when the last time was they were emptied. How much they’ve collected in credit cards or cash at the moment. How many people are using parking apps.”

A lot of day-to-day information now is hard to come by because of non-networked, and paper-based record keeping systems. For instance it’s hard to say how much money the city is owed in unpaid parking tickets issued in 2013 or how many cars in St. Louis need to be booted. St. Louis Public Radio requested this public information under a sunshine records request, but was told it would cost more than $200 for the hours it would take to collect the data.

According to the Treasurer, records and data are hard to come by for even in-house requests. 

“We’ve got a lot of paper lying around,” she said.  “A lot of times when we ask for reports, it takes several days [or] several weeks to get the data so this isn’t just about the customer experience it’s also about the back end.”

The city of St. Louis resumed using wheel clamps, or parking boots, in 1999 to compel vehicles owners to pay outstanding parking tickets. The clamp immobilizes the vehicle and is designed to prevent removal of both itself and the wheel. In St. Louis, the interval between the when a car is booted and when it's towed to the impound can be as little as 15 minutes.
Credit Joseph Leahy / St. Louis Public Radio

Such information could allow tracking trends in specific areas of the city. For instance, the locations and dates of boots placed in 2013, to see where parking ticket scofflaws are caught most often.  St. Louis Public Radio did pay $240 for this public information under another sunshine records request and produced the interactive map below. (A note to parking ticket scofflaws: if you have four or more late tickets you might want to steer clear of downtown.)

Jones has her work cut out for her, said Alderman Roddy, whose district in the Central Corridor has some of the busiest parking enforcement activity in the entire city. 

“There’s just a lot of things that have to be changed over there and changing a bureaucracy that is frequently regulated by ordinances or statutes is very slow and very time consuming to get changes implemented.”

Vehicles Booted in St. Louis