Scrambling for a quarter to feed a Belleville parking meter? There may not be a reason to hurry. For several years, there has been a different method of enforcement of the meters, a situation some residents describe as an “open secret.”
After the parking meter department was shut down in 2010 in an effort to save money, the city police department assigned part-time community service officers to collect coins and respond to citizen complaints about parking violations. The officers usually give warnings to violators instead of parking tickets.
Mayor Mark Eckert and Police Chief Bill Clay say parking meter enforcement is not the priority it once was. City revenue from parking meters has dropped under this policy but they say it’s good for business.
Clay said the reality is parking is limited in downtown Belleville, and a balance is needed between the police department and merchants and their customers.
“If I come down with a bunch of friends and family, and we dine at a place and we do some shopping, I park at a meter and I put some money in there ... and I spend $150 down in Belleville. I come out, and I’m greeted with a wonderful thank you from Belleville of a (parking ticket) on top of all I’ve done,” Clay said. “That’s really going to make me want to come back here, is it not?”
Parking ticket fines range from $10 for an expired meter to $250 for a handicap parking violation.
The guys write a bunch of parking warning tickets.
Sean Harris, Belleville police officer
Belleville police Officer Sean Harris has been the supervisor of the community service officers who handle parking meter collection and enforcement for the city since 2012.
Now, when the community service officers respond to complaints, they generally issue warnings rather than tickets, according to Harris.
This method of enforcement is different from the past, when parking meter attendants drove around Belleville actively looking for infractions, marking car tires with chalk and issuing tickets.
“The guys write a bunch of parking warning tickets,” Harris said. “It’s basically a warning ticket and a bookmark when you’re done with it. It lets you know, (your meter) was expired today or this is not a parking area.”
These warnings, instead of tickets, were the brainchild of Clay, who suggested the idea after the police department took over the responsibilities of the parking meter department.
When Clay proposed written warnings to Eckert as a potential solution to the parking problem, Clay described the mayor’s response as “ecstatic.”
“You’ll see a drop in revenue, but I think overall it’s better,” Clay said. “If your goal is revenue, then hammer people.”
However, “When the police are into revenue making, you’re going to have problems,” Clay said.
Clay estimated police officers issue warnings up to 75 percent of the time rather than tickets. He thought that should extend to parking meter enforcement too.
“We want compliance,” Clay said. “If you can get compliance with a soft hand, why not?”
Harris said, “(We’re) just looking ... to make sure that people who go in to do shopping have some good parking and are not parking on top of each other.”
Harris added that police officers can issue parking tickets at any time while on patrol and have always had that ability.
A change in philosophy
Eckert said, “I will agree with Officer Harris in that, in recent years, our philosophy has not been to make big revenue about parking. We try to make sure that people don’t abuse it and park there all day so that it’s fair and being turned over.”
Eckert cited three main reasons why Belleville installed parking meters: the courthouse, St. Elizabeth’s hospital and downtown businesses. He noted the parking meters remaining around the now-empty hospital will need to be re-evaluated. St. Elizabeth’s Hospital relocated to O’Fallon in early November.
“For people in the downtown area to come to other businesses, they needed meters to regulate and keep the traffic flow going,” Eckert said. “Belleville was the shopping mecca of Southern Illinois. Employees, following human nature, they wanted to park as close as they could. The logic was, tell the store employees to park down the street where there was no meters. But, human nature, if they could get by with (parking closer), they would.”
When the police are into revenue making, you’re going to have problems.
Police Chief Bill Clay
Eckert said, “There are a lot of different reasons why things have happened the way they have. A few people have criticized us. We’re trying to be perceived as a friendly place to do business and help our brick-and-mortar businesses. We want to create an atmosphere where people are welcome and avoid, ‘Oh by the way, as you leave Belleville, here’s your parking ticket.’”
Clay said one has to remember there’s a relationship between the police, merchants and customers.
“Our goal, the vision, the philosophy behind it is to make it user friendly down there,” Clay said. “And I think by introducing the warning tickets, we actually got that.”
Parking meter evolution
In 2010, city officials said they believed the fewer tickets written for parking meter enforcement were due to a “learning curve” in assigning the responsibilities to a new department.
Clay told the News-Democrat, in 2010, “I am not the parking meter police.”
In a recent interview, Clay said his past statement showed his reservations about adding the parking meters to police responsibilities. But now, he believes the system in place works and he’s “very pleased” with it.
“I guess I am the parking meter guy and police,” Clay said.
There have been some savings by eliminating the parking meter department.
The annual salaries and benefits of the parking meter department employees were $110,000 per year. The salaries of the two part-time community service officers who check the meters was $21,451.54 last year. That’s a savings of $88,548.46.
The community service officers also do other nonessential police functions like taking meals to prisoners and delivering papers.
We want to create an atmosphere where people are welcome and avoid, ‘Oh by the way, as you leave Belleville, here’s your parking ticket.’
Mayor Mark Eckert
Parking meter attendants used to bring in large amounts of money for the city, some of which was used to repave city parking lots.
Belleville collected $64,173 in fines paid for parking tickets issued in 2004. The amount of fines paid for parking tickets issued last fiscal year was $8,910. That’s $55,263 less.
In 2004, Belleville collected $81,486.44 in coins from its parking meters. According to bank receipts obtained by the BND through a Freedom of Information request, the city collected $44,242.90 in coins last fiscal year. That’s $37,243.54 less.
Eckert said, “We do not have today, in this tougher economic climate, just two people assigned to parking meters eight hours a day. We don’t. We made that sacrifice because we’re trying to be frugal and free up some of the services of the policemen so they can patrol more and spend more time keeping our citizens safe.”
Clay said that state law does not allow the city to mandate a ticket quota to the police.
“If you’re out there saying, ‘Give me 100 tickets,’ you’re asking for problems,” Clay said.
Eckert said, “I think we constantly have to re-evaluate the future of this. It may be, as some of these meters wear out, we may eliminate some and put signs back up.” Street signs could be used to tell motorists how long they can park.
Street signs versus meters
Jason Poole, director of public works for the city of Belleville, said the cost to put up street signs varies.
Poole said, “If we put signs on Main Street, those are going on existing posts. We would only have to pay the cost of the sign. If we have to put a post in or put a sign on a new post, we’d have the post cost too.”
A rough estimate for the cost of a sign, a pole and the time for a city employee to install it, is approximately $75 per sign.
According to a Freedom of Information request, repair, maintenance and replacement expenses for the Belleville parking meters for the last five fiscal years was $8,170.60.
“We’re constantly looking at improvements. It’s time and money,” Eckert said. “We’ve continued to study this and to do our homework. But, it is true we don’t have the exact same emphasis on (parking meter enforcement).”
In a reader query about the Belleville parking meters, BND readers voiced opinions ranging from “a good deal” and “not a problem” to “a joke” and “very annoying.”
Gary Seitz thinks Belleville would develop more business if the city got rid of the meters. Seitz believes “the East Main connector and the pay-for-street parking was the downfall of downtown.”
Tom Downing believes there is no problem with parking meters. He also thought if there were no meters, some cars would occupy parking spaces and never leave.
Reid Linksvayer told the BND he has lived in Belleville for one year. He believes the parking meters are a joke and has never paid at any of them. Linksvayer has never received a ticket.
Barb Brestal McGhee said she didn’t mind the small cost for parking as long as it brought in revenue for the city.
Donna Range believes the parking meters are “very annoying.” When she takes her grandchildren to the movies, she tries to find a spot in the free parking lot rather than feeding the meter.
Emily Lopez Wombacher believes Belleville natives “know you don’t need to feed (the parking meters).” She suggested the only revenue the meters bring in are from out-of-town visitors. Wombacher has never received a ticket for a parking meter infraction.
Nella Dickerson doesn’t mind paying the meters, but she has noticed some of them don’t work. She doesn’t want to risk getting a ticket.
Where to call
See a broken parking meter in Belleville? Let the police department know about it by calling 618-234-1218, ext. 1731.