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Originally published Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 9:01 PM

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Parking revenue turns council's heads, not our convenience

To some Seattle City Council members, a new plan to help citizens avoid overtime parking tickets has an obvious flaw: It reduces the fines collected by City Hall.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Parking is the new gold rush for the city of Seattle.

Since 2009, the money the city makes from its parking pay stations has soared 31 percent. The money it gets from fining you when you mess up and let those meters expire has risen even more, 33 percent.

Roll it all together — the combined revenues from 13,000 paid parking spots and some 600,000 parking fines annually — and it totals nearly $60 million. Enough that the city's now dependent on that cash to cover its nut.

So dependent it's behaving like an addict.

That's the only explanation I can come up with for the strange scene down at City Hall last week. In which council members argued they didn't want to make it easier for you to pay to park. Because doing so would cost them some money.

Mayor Mike McGinn wants the city to adopt a program that allows paying for your on-street parking with a smartphone. You enter your license plate and pay online, and then the software tracks how much time you have left. Parking enforcement, by entering your plate number into their handheld devices, can tell whether you paid or if you merit a ticket.

The genius is that when you're running late the app sends you a text warning you the meter is about to expire. You can then top the meter off, from dinner or the theater or wherever you may be, to avoid a ticket.

It's a modest nicety. Dozens of cities, such as Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco, already use it. In England it has caught on enough that some cities there may scrap their physical meters completely.

The allure of the program is stated right on San Francisco's website: "Making it easier to pay for parking helps people avoid parking tickets."

Uh-oh. Last week our City Council was told what that means to them. Seattle would likely make about $1 million less next year in parking fines.

The reason is twofold. One, some parkers will feed the meter and avoid getting fined. Two, parking enforcement will be slightly less efficient because they have to enter your license-plate number to see if you paid up. So each officer may end up writing fewer tickets.

"This does seem to be a heavy cost to bear for this convenience," one council member, Jean Godden, bemoaned during a budget hearing.

"To me, it just doesn't pencil out," echoed Councilmember Nick Licata. "It's going to cost us money that we could be spending somewhere else."

Obviously I need to adjust my attitude about parking tickets. When I get one, or five, I shouldn't curse the city for increasingly punishing its citizenry with higher parking rates and bloodsucking enforcement. I should say: "It sure is great I didn't burden the city by feeding that meter correctly."

Only two council members that I could hear didn't seem set on "maximizing revenue." One, Sally Bagshaw, suggested it would be nice to make going downtown less of a hassle. The other, Tom Rasmussen, reminded his colleagues that these are punishments we're talking about.

"I don't think we should build our budget on fines and penalties," he said. "We want to make it easier to live and work here. Not to hope that people violate the law."

One recommendation is to scrap pay-by-phone, yet still hire eight more parking enforcement officers. This, of course, would jack the number of parking tickets even higher. What the council does will be decided in the next month as part of its budget.

Look, you get a parking ticket, that's life in the big city. Parking around here obviously isn't going to be free.

But the city's dependence on parking cash has gotten out of control when a simple idea to make life gentler for us is viewed, by them, as a raid on their kitty.

Godden suggested people are OK with the parking system as it is.

"Whereas we would like to see our customers happy, I have not seen them rioting in the streets over whether they can pay by phone," she said.

Hmm. Sounds like an invitation.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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