The Big Picture?
After finishing my interview on foodabouttown.com’s podcast, I wanted to clarify a few of the economic issues I brought up with host Chris Lindstrom. Topics we merely touched on but deserve further investigation in my opinion.
I have written about my fight with the city over the business license and the outcomes. I have told you tales of skirmishes with the locals. And I have told you of my behavior modification experiments and my starring role as the “Catalyst at Large”. Now I’d like to venture into a little economic theory with no credentials to do so whatsoever.
In a piece about the “Portal” in the story section, one might think my greatest nemesis over the years existed in that hole in the ground, but I am more apt to believe otherwise. The most constant and persistent battle for all my years was with Parking Enforcement, specifically the policy makers that influenced that department. This is not going to be a rant about getting parking tickets but rather a discussion of the macroeconomic issues of parking tickets, red-light camera, and the dreaded yellow boot that we see all too often in our city. I will attempt to entertain you along the way, but this will have undertones of survival for a mid-size city and some business principles as I see them.
The number of tickets I received over the years on State Street is staggering. The number of tickets that I paid was barely a stumble. I have no reason to complain about the money I had to spend over the years, but the time, aggravation and favors used are another story. There were ways to get around this particular process of taxation on the small business owner, but the customers were usually on their own. It wasn’t without risk, and certainly it was a small minority of business guys who were successful at ridding themselves of this horrible and outdated nuisance. I consider myself very lucky in this regard and any complaining about what I have paid is certainly inappropriate.
Before we get started, let me quell the usual strategy you hear in response to these problems. “Why don’t you just park in a lot or garage, like other downtown workers?” This is a great idea; limit the risks of tickets and free up space on the street; and all is well. Nope. It just doesn’t work that way for small places. Every owner I know in the food business is out of the store at least once a day, usually more often than that. Product outages - usually because we have limited storage and it is impossible to predict demand and delivery; banking requirements; life issues; employee problems; things that break that have to be fixed, now!
Whatever the reason. In and out of a food place is mandatory. If you think otherwise, you don't know the industry.
Back to the problem at hand. Parking. Over the years the assaults came in waves, like any good armed forces campaign. There would be periods of relative calm and peace and then a big push arrived. This usually occurred with a change of personnel in the enforcement team, either city management, the staff at the PVB (parking violations bureau) or the police department when they were in charge of the foot soldiers. I remember well the gates and faces of those enemy combatants and of those friendly allies that patrolled our streets. The learned behavioral response to those sitings would give B.F. Skinner plenty of data for his conditioning experiments.
The foot soldier took the brunt of assaults from most people, but the true target of my ire and disgust were the policy makers. Those street soldiers were the enforcers of the code with some leeway on how to proceed. If we couldn’t negotiate a reasonable truce with each soldier, they often were the recipient of retribution that was better saved for their superiors. Superiors, I might add, that were usually hiding behind some desk, hidden in some office, without the balls to out themselves. Chicken shits. All of them.
So the war raged on. A new monitor would be assigned to our area and the terms of the battle depended on their particular interpretation of the orders given. Although we experienced periods of peace with one, the next would dig their teeth in with such force, you would have thought world peace was at stake.
For a period of time I was so annoyed with them I started papering my wall with the tickets accumulated since renewing my registration. This was all prior to the ugly process of booting cars began. Registration renewal was the turning point for anyone with outstanding tickets in the early days. You had to find a way to wipe the slate clean of violations before you could reregister your vehicle. This happened every two years. That’s when action was needed on the part of the ticket recipient. That all changed with the “Boot”. Thanks Susan Olley. She brought us the program of booting cars with 3 outstanding tickets. Nice job furthering the economic devastation of our community. Not that it’s all her fault, but that was just another step deeper on our “Dante-esque” like path down the inferno to economic hell.
My wall was getting pretty full, somewhere in the neighborhood 35-40 tickets, all unpaid, and I had no certain plan on how to alleviate myself from the impeding doom of registering my car. For those of you who have never received a parking ticket, you are given 30 days to pay before the fines start to accelerate, with increasing fines topping off at about 3 times the original face value after 90 days. At that point there is no reason to pay the fines until you plan on registering your car, especially if you have ever studied the time value of money. I think someone told Susan Olley about that financial theory and that’s when the “booting” started.
Parking restrictions served a purpose at one point in our city’s development. That point occurred during the end of the boom time or our downtown area and the beginning of the automobile revolution. Car ownership was increasing and people worked and shopped downtown. The need for short term parking for customers was getting larger as fewer people took public transportation and the subway system disappeared.
Businesses were asking for a reprieve from cars parked all day on the street, limiting customer turnover when availability was scarce. Years later when businesses asked for a change in the system the city’s addiction to the revenue could not be broken. Like a drug addict with a $15.00 dollar a hour habit (When I opened meters were had a one hour limit and the fee for exceeding that limit was $15.00). Like most drug addicts, the city’s habit has grown to $50.00 for an hour and one minute, when your meter expires. There is not only an inflationary principle here but a dopamine sensitivity principle as well. “Addiction is a bitch”, as it is said by whoever says those things.
This is one circumstance where lagging 2 years behind the rest of the country on topical issues and ideas in government came in handy. This perpetual lagging our community insists upon in creativity and sometimes economic growth can prevent the downside risks associated with unproven ideas and bad decisions. It can also limit us in attracting a young and trained workforce and progressive businesses. It would be nice if we had an original idea on occasion and went forward with it, or at least supported more creative ideas that could attract new people to our city (think Jazz Fest with year long influence). But we can’t have everything.
Now that we are booting cars in the city for parking violations the city sees more of the money that they are owed much faster. An argument can be made that they would receive their money in due time (registration time) but as stated earlier, there is a time value to money. The downside to the consumer is the increase in fees that occur if you are booted. There is a boot charge; a daily charge for having the boot, and a not returning the boot charge.
When you car is booted you are required to call an “800” number (not local) to pay for your indiscretion of parking somewhere without paying or somewhere you shouldn’t have. You will need to pay for all your tickets and the fees associated with getting caught for this horrible debasement of the city codes. You are required to plead guilty to any infraction and have no recourse of appeal. All this to get the boot removed, and if you do not or cannot, you will be charged $50.00/ day from that point on. A fairly un-American style of justice, at least in principle.
Understand that to get to this point you will have had to acquire at least three tickets, and not paid them within the 30 day rule. It might be argued that you deserve all this if you willing to let things go this far. Maybe, but the jury that you are not granted here, is still out for me on that argument. And this discussion does not plan on heading in that direction.
Let’s start with the bigger picture. Part of that additional fee that is collected above and beyond the original parking fines and late fees (over 50%) is sent to the company that is processing the booting and the payments. That means that in order to collect the money owed the city (money the would have collected at the end of the 2 year registration process) you are charged additional money. Money that is removed from the flow within the city. It is being sent to some other state, and they will get the advantage of that money being spent within their community.
Remember that money spent inside your community will continually get cycled through the local economy and retains local wealth. Money that is spent outside the community or is removed from the local system does the same for the community where is it spent. This decreases the overall wealth of the local economy. This idea is often proven in the form of money spent on luring tourism dollars. “Come to our town and spend the dollars you earn in your own community. Leave your wealth with us and enjoy whatever we have hyped up for your entertainment.”
Let’s move on to the next level of all this deficit thinking. Red light cameras. I think anyone who had been captured on camera for this violation will just agree with me upon hearing those three little words. But let’s keep going with this a little. The car that is registered to you gets filmed violated a yellow or red light and the magical line at the intersection that indicates you are guilty. As the registrant you are sent a notice of violation and a fine. Up until recently there was no reporting to the DMV or insurance agency, nor was the enforcement anything more than a report to credit agencies for ignoring the fine.
If after receiving the ticket you choose to challenge the accusation, you have a few options. But the one that sparks my attention is the “I wasn’t driving the car” excuse. If you were not driving, you are required to provide detailed information of the person driving, incriminating them, to exonerate yourself. They do not have to prove it was you, but you are on the hook until you give up someone else.
This was a bad idea when it first started and many people have challenged it under several principles of law. Since red light cameras are still up and operating I assume they have had limited success.. The money collected for these grave violations has an even greater negative impact on our community wealth than the parking tickets. The Arizona company contracted to operate these cameras are creating the penalty and the violation. They take a larger total percentage of the money the violater is being penalized. In the parking tickets example there is an existing violation where the fines are split between the city and state. Not so with red-light tickets.
Now the city has started booting for unpaid violations of these red light cameras. This is an accelerant of the bonfire of our diminishing economic issues. Create the infraction. Send most of the money elsewhere. And then enforce the created infraction, and sent that money outside the community as well. Brilliant. You know that symbol of our city? That disconnected pentagonal image with softer edges. It’s starting to make sense to me. Disconnected from the people of the city; from creativity; from reality; from common sense; from existing economic understanding; from the core of the issues.
More money leaving the community for behavior that is happening within the community. I have not even addressed the legitimacy of the cause. Penalizing your citizens to raise revenue is an overall negative for any locale. Sending more that 50% of that money to Arizona is just stupid.
I once told a sitting Mayor of the city, sometime around 2009, that a good indicator of the severe economic demise of our community was that middle level managers of the city of Rochester were wearing more expensive suits that the businessmen of the community they are charged with governing. Think about that for a few minutes. It is pertinent. And most of those city officials do not live in the city either. Another travesty. Take the money from the city tax roles and give it to the suburbs with whom you are competing. Genius. But that is for another rant.