So far this summer, I've paid $65 in parking tickets. I usually wait until I accumulate a couple — because it is inevitable — until the oldest one reaches its 15-day limit, and then I pay them all. I used to cavalierly stuff them in the driver's side visor until the city towed me. Still, one small yellow envelope is always riding shotgun in my car.
There has been an increase in parking enforcement in Columbia recently, but the city spokespeople I talked to didn't know about it or why it was happening.
In one year, the average number of tows and boots per month doubled. In fact, the number of tows and boots for the first nine months of fiscal year 2010 exceeded the entire fiscal year 2009. The number of parking tickets issued shows little significant change, but the average dollar amount paid per ticket rose almost $2.
For the past three years, the number of tows and tickets issued has risen steadily, with about a 60 percent increase in tickets issued and a more than 400 percent increase in tows since 2007. I found these trends by requesting documents from the Public Works Department and the Municipal Court and then doing the math myself.
Yet, it seemed no one at either of those places could tell me why.
At the beginning of July, I requested several sets of data concerning tickets, tows, salaries of parking enforcement officers and then all the same information for several other years. All that information was quickly and painlessly provided.
When I started asking questions about the numbers, though, I started to find trouble.
I was referred back and forth between the Public Works Department and Municipal Court. And then they threw the Columbia Police Department into the mix, just in case I was getting bored e-mailing the same people with the same questions.
Finally, the spokeswoman at the Municipal Court gave me Parking Enforcement Supervisor Bill Lewis' number, who told me there has been no concerted effort to increase parking enforcement lately.
He also said there was a policy change requiring cars to be tagged before towed in 2008 that stalled tows for about 18 months. During that time, the list of cars needing to be towed grew, so now the city must catch up as more vehicles are added each day.
Finally, my question was answered. The process to find it, though, only spawned more questions: Why did I have to wade through weeks of bureaucracy to find the answer? Even more to the point, why aren't more people involved with parking — arguably one of the most agonizing and debated topics in any city — and critically thinking about parking enforcement policies?
With any complex system, it's understandable that not everyone will know every answer, nor should they. But, I wanted to know if someone somewhere in the city had consciously decided to increase parking enforcement. It could have taken the form of a policy change, a program from grant money or even a memo.
Maybe that means it's time to start thinking about our policies. Maybe the people who hand out tickets, who attach the tow hook to bumpers, who process the tickets and talk to angry residents, who provide news outlets with all the information about parking enforcement need to get together and consider Columbia's parking enforcement policies.
Then, maybe I could get better answers than: "City ordinance allows for the towing of vehicles with four or more parking tickets. I would assume it is a good deterrent," from Shara Meyers at the Municipal Court when I ask if deterrence is the rationale behind towing.
My next column will be about the effectiveness of Columbia's towing system and how it could benefit from more thought.
Molly Harbarger is an assistant city editor at the Columbia Missourian.