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Parking Tix: War on the poor in Detroit



By Michele Oberholzer

Think twice before you drive into downtown Detroit. It’s not that you’ll be carjacked or get lost on our bewildering road network, but you will get ripped off if you deign to park here. 

Under Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s recent ordinance, you will be forced to pay $45 for the offense of an expired parking meter

In one fell swoop, Orr increased fines for all parking violations and removed the 10-day reduced rate window. The outcome is penalty hikes of up to 450 percent.

Let’s put that into context. For someone making minimum wage (currently $7.40/hr in Michigan), it would take a full day of work just to pay off this parking ticket. 

Remember Detroit is the city where people are choosing between their water bills (otherwise your water will get shut off), their property taxes (otherwise the city will take your house) or mortgage payments (otherwise the bank will take your house). 

The fine is that much more excessive for the reported 23 percent of Detroiters who are unemployed (that’s six points higher than the next-worst city on the list). And even if you are a lucky soul with a decent income, just imagine driving up to one of the few remaining downtown shops to purchase a $3 coffee, a $10 lunch, or a $15 T-shirt and then facing a $45 parking ticket when you return to your car. You aren’t likely to take that risk again — better to shop at the mall or order online.

Detroit residents are already used to paying more and getting less. City services have faced cut after cut as the population shrinks while demands on infrastructure stubbornly remain high as ever. Car insurance rates are over 50 percent higher than the next highest city in the country by some estimates.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if Detroit had any reasonably functioning public transportation system, but we don’t. Even in the immediate downtown area, most bus stops lack seating or shelter for riders, who may wait up to or over an hour for the privilege of taking a bus. The People Mover monorail is lovely for a visual tour of Detroit but not terribly useful for the 99.9 percent of residents who don’t live along its circuit. 

Well, if you can’t afford a parking ticket, don’t break the laws, right? It’s not so simple. Parking meters in Detroit have two-hour time limits. If you want to stay awhile, you’ll have to park in the many (constantly proliferating) paid lots which are significantly more expensive. Deferring traffic from the sidewalks into parking structures removes low-cost parking options to those who live in, work in and visit Detroit while siphoning money to the corporations who manage those lots. Now Kevyn Orr is looking into privatization of the entire parking network in Detroit, yet another step in the blatant transition of all resources in the public trust into private hands.

If you get one, it’s really not worth your time to bother trying to contest a ticket. If you pay a visit to the Municipal Parking Department (easily identifiable by the sudden appearance of parking meters immediately outside), you may see a judge that same day, but it’s unlikely justice will be served. 

On a recent visit there, I witnessed case after case where bewildered citizens citing ambiguous signage when protesting their tickets. The presiding judge told one woman “do not pay attention to the paint” when she showed a picture of painted pavement that indicated parking was allowed. He also mentioned many times that we should know better than to park in certain areas “unless there is a ‘Parking Allowed’ sign.” 

Even when you try very hard not to get a parking ticket, you may yet unwittingly stumble into a parking trap. To be fair, Detroit is reportedly bankrupt. In these times we have to make tough choices to balance the budget and bring some income into our struggling city. But is the city there for the people or are the people there for the city? Policies like this parking ticket hike make a marginal increase to the city’s bottom line at the expense of the much-embattled citizens of Detroit. 

But wait. Kevyn Orr has stated this measure will not even making a meaningful dent in the public revenue but is rather a symbolic gesture to creditors. In a maddening statement of delusion, he draws a comparison to the Big Apple “and we did not go to the high end of the rates. 

These aren’t what you might find for some violations in Manhattan.” If it weren’t already clear Mr. Orr, this is not Manhattan. Which, by the way, has an excellent public transportation system as an alternative to driving. Which, by the way, has no problem attracting residents and visitors. Which, by the way, actually charges less than Detroit’s new rates for the entire city other than Manhattan-proper. 

Here’s a quick lesson in economics: Detroit is not what you would call a seller’s market. People can, and will, leave, if we don’t give them something to stick around for.

Actually, the joke is on us. Emergency management understands economics perfectly. A great way to eke value out of a surplus is to simulate shortage. These excessive fines do just that: They make street parking unusable for most people who spend time downtown. There is a particular shade of irony to this “problem” given the true abundance of available parking in a city built around the automobile for a population over twice its current level.

If not directly malicious, this policy represents a frustrating lack of vision on the part of the emergency manager — not surprising for a temporary appointee. The fee hike values short-term profit at the expense of long-term patronage of the downtown area. 

This administration is capable of considering the long game as long as corporations stand to gain: take the recent $1 sale of land valued at $2.9 million to sports magnate Mike Ilitch. Now all we need are some smallpox blankets (per L. Brooks Patterson) and the people get quite a deal.

A public hearing was held before the parking meter ordinance was officially passed. It was a sweet charade of democracy in a decision that was decided long before the public got their say.

Detroit just had an election. It might seem like a strange exercise for a city under emergency management. In effect, Detroiters’ task is to elect people into office who won’t use their power to undo our other votes by surgically removing our vocal chords. 

Current leadership has taken our imbalanced budget as evidence of our inability to self-govern. Imagine Congress saying to President Obama, “Just look at the deficit you’re running! We’re going to have John Boehner take over until things are straightened out. Or maybe things will go faster with, say, Lindsay Graham. You brought this on yourself.” That’s pretty much what we are living through right now — temporary dictatorship. 

Simply put, the punishment for parking violations do not fit the crime and Detroit will ultimately suffer the consequences. It is hard to get worked up over parking meter fines in a city facing water shutoffs for as much as 40 percent of its residents, but it is another example in a series of assaults wherein Detroiters are being squeezed a little harder. You can’t draw blood from a stone, but a thousand paper cuts just might kill us.

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