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Macon parking scofflaws owe $208,000 in fines as meters come back online

The Macon-Bibb UDA grapples with compliance, management issues, overdue collections and a new education campaign

MACON, Ga. — Drivers coming into downtown Macon might have thought they got a reprieve on paying for parking and fines, but a collection agency could soon be calling.

Over the past year, more than $208,000 in parking tickets has not been paid with one individual racking up $20,000 in fines, according to figures provided by the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority.

Four years after reinstating the meters, the UDA is having to step up enforcement and re-educate the public about compliance and the purpose and benefits of paid parking.

For several months, signs on downtown Macon parking meters instructed motorists to pay through the Passport Parking app, as the machines could no longer take credit cards.

The 3G technology used for the meter’s transmitter to complete those digital transactions is being phased out, which meant shipping out meter parts for upgrades.

Now that most of the radios have been reprogrammed and meters are coming back online, the Urban Development Authority again is struggling to get people to use the meters and pay fines. It costs $1.25 per hour for up to three hours, and overtime parking tickets are $10.

“We have engaged a collections company,” UDA Executive Director Alex Morrison said. “Our goal in that is to try to give everybody a chance to pay before going to court. We’d really rather people go ahead and pay and give us an opportunity to work with them.”

In addition to the meter upgrade issues, the COVID-19 pandemic also caused worker shortages for Reef, the parking management company hired by UDA. Without adequate staffing, there were blocks of time when no one was writing tickets which helped feed noncompliance.

Some of those getting the $10 tickets for overtime or unpaid parking, also ignore the $20 late fee for nonpayment. The charges keep piling up seemingly without repercussions as the authority has never used a collection agency before.

The UDA intends to treat cases individually and may waive some of the overdue fees.

“We know that people have had hardships and those sorts of things and that there’s probably been some confusion about the validity of parking tickets,” Morrison said. “We want people to know that, one, the tickets are valid and that there are consequences of not paying them.”

Meters were not being emptied of coins, either, keeping visitors from being able to insert money into the full box. Coins come in handy on short trips to allow you to pay only for time you need and avoid overpaying or processing fees. 

Without a regular presence of parking attendants, people also have been illegally parking on sidewalks, medians and in alleys and commercial loading zones. No parking zone tickets are $50 and parking outside the lines of a designated space costs $25.

Now that Reef has adequate staff, attendants are calling in tow trucks to deal with those kinds of issues.

Robert Stephens, the assistant director and operations manager for the Urban Development Authority, has devoted much of his first two months on the job researching parking issues and best practices in other cities.

“I think people get hyped about this, the scofflaws and whatnot, but really what that’s telling us is that our theory of management and the execution aren’t working,” Stephens said in his first interview with The Macon Newsroom.

While Stephens understands the premise that charging for parking can actually improve the downtown customer base as it’s easier to find parking, not everyone embraces the meters.

Stephens recently met with Reef Parking management to discuss enforcement issues and set clear expectations of what is required of them. With employee turnover, there have been three different parking managers in a little over four years. The parking management contract expires later this year and UDA expects to reopen the bidding process with requests for proposals.

In a recent UDA meeting, Stephens reported to the board that tow truck operators have been getting frustrated because they were being called out to tow a vehicle in a commercial loading zone only to be flagged off by a business owner claiming permission to park there.

Wednesday, Stephens happened upon an irate couple raising their voices on Cherry Street as their Mercedes was about to be towed from a brick median in front of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.

Stephens worked to diffuse the situation, by explaining that he understood their frustration as he once got a $400 parking ticket in Washington, D.C., when he wasn’t even the one driving his vehicle.

“No one’s picking on you. It’s being enforced,” Stephens told the couple.

A parking employee called for the tow truck because the raised brick that’s part of the plaza is not striped for parking, and that space needs to be kept open for larger emergency vehicles to be able to make the U-turn near Terminal Station, he explained.

“Not all of the sidewalks are supported, either,” Stephens said. “There are public safety issues all over the place with illegal parking.”

The couple paid the $150 towing fee on the spot so that Ackerman’s towing could release the sedan back to them. Stephens said he would follow up to make sure they were also ticketed for illegal parking.

“It’s not personal. It’s about having respect for our city,” Stephens said later.

Turning over spaces, improving downtown

The UDA’s aim in reinstating parking nearly five years ago was to allow for the turnover of on-street parking by preventing drivers from circling the blocks searching for a place to park, which can hinder business.

In the past, business owners and downtown employees kept spots tied up all day. Meters limit legal parking to three hours between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Parking is free outside those hours and on Sundays and holidays.

Because of the recent lackluster enforcement, old habits have resurfaced as evidenced by the mounting unpaid tickets, with some of the worst offenders being downtown workers or business owners, according to discussions at Urban Development Authority meetings.

“My plan is to actually have amnesty for a certain threshold of the tickets,” Stephens said. “We’re just going to have to have community forums and reset this entire program.”

Employers and workers are encouraged to rent spaces in downtown parking garages, including the authority’s deck at 440 Mulberry St.

Downtown residents can apply for a Residential Parking Permit which allows free parking for up to 12 hours at a time at designated spots on Third, Second and First streets.

Stephens would like more employers to pay for designated parking for workers in the often-under-utilized decks. He is drafting an information pamphlet for new employees or residents to better understand the downtown parking restrictions before racking up a bunch of fines.

He wants visitors to embrace a “park once and walk” philosophy when visiting multiple spots downtown.

“More people are going to live downtown, so they’re going to be walking around. We want the traffic. If you get foot traffic, that increases consumer spending,” Stephens said.

Retired Theatre Macon Artistic Director Jim Crisp, who now serves on the authority, said he ceremoniously put the first coin in a meter when the parking program was launched in 2018.

“It’s an important system,” Crisp said during a parking discussion in January when the authority first learned the meters would be offline for months. “Having a business downtown and the issue of people living downtown and working taking up all the parking was a huge issue for our patrons. It really worked well for a while.”

The UDA also is exploring funding possibilities for two new parking decks expected downtown – one with the Central City Commons hotel and apartment building project between Poplar and Plum streets, and another parking deck behind City Hall that will be built as part of another residential and retail complex at the corner of D.T. Walton Way. That deck also will provide parking for county employees.

“We would prefer a downtown where we don’t have to write parking tickets,” Morrison said. “We just want folks to be able to have parking to go to downtown restaurants, downtown retail, to enjoy the facilities downtown, which is the reason. We’re not trying to make money off of tickets. Tickets are just there to make sure people comply, and that what’s we’re trying to do.”

Reef gets paid a flat management fee, which means there is no monetary incentive for attendants to write more tickets. Any revenue made off of parking and fines goes into a parking fund that pays the management fee and also covers cost of downtown improvements.

Although the pandemic and resulting economic downturn curbed profits, the authority has been able to make several upgrades to the Mulberry parking deck and is currently planning to fund restriping of downtown streets and sprucing up commercial loading zones.

Stephens has plenty of ideas for enhancing downtown through the parking proceeds.

“My job is to communicate to the public how more efficient parking management includes transportation alternatives, includes increasing public safety for pedestrians and cyclists,” he said. “All of these wonderful things that bring the city into a common future, a more inclusive future.”

– Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at fabian_lj@mercer.edu or 478-301-2976.

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