I remember my first Utica parking ticket.
I was 17 years old and only had my license and my new (to me) car for about six weeks when I decided that, instead of driving home after a pretty wild post football game party, I’d be better off crashing at the host’s house and leaving in the morning once the cheap beer and even cheaper plastic-bottle liquor had a chance to work its way out of my system. There was no room for me in the driveway and I knew that the rule was “no parking over night between 2am and 6am” within the City of Utica, but I figured that since we were on a dead end street in a quiet neighborhood in East Utica the cops would give me a pass. My car wasn’t in anyone’s way and besides, there were a few other cars that had made the same decision as me. Surely Utica’s Finest would see all of us doing the right thing and silently thank all of us for not stumbling out behind the wheel and endangering ourselves or others by trying to get our cars home so that Sulzer Place could be free of beat up Civics and rusty pickup trucks for the night. I was wrong.
That was my first Utica parking ticket, but it would not be my last. For every parking ticket I got that was me being forgetful, lazy or just brazenly rolling the dice that the cops wouldn’t notice for one night, I got just as many that were products of circumstance outside of my control. Living in an apartment with more cars than you have driveway space for? Utica parking ticket. Fell asleep watching a movie at a friend’s house late at night? Utica parking ticket. Had one or two Utica Clubs too many and decide not to drive? Utica parking ticket. There was a particularly prolific stretch when I was still living at home where I’d get home from work at around midnight, only for my father to move my car out of the driveway when he left for work at 4:30am, which technically meant my car was breaking the law and I was subject to a Utica parking ticket. Even today, like many people here in Utica, I live in an apartment that is half of a two family home with a single file driveway. If there are four cars in the driveway, one of them has to block the sidewalk which is, you guessed it, a $50 violation. It has always been a hassle and anybody who’s lived in the area probably knows that sinking feeling of walking out to your car and seeing that unmistakable piece of paper underneath their windshield wiper. Once upon a time this would cost you a minor headache and $20 to take care of. Annoying, but not unreasonable. If you didn’t pay it within 72 hours the Utica parking ticket fee would jump to $50, which is also fair since you did break the law and 72 hours should be enough time to scrape together $20. If you still continued to ignore a ticket and it got to the point that they came looking for you, your $20 Utica parking ticket would turn into $100. Again, I don’t disagree with that price structure. It’s a perfectly fair fine to levy if the offender lets their Utica parking ticket go that far and $100 is a great deterrent to keep people from not taking parking tickets seriously.
This system was in place until April 1, 2012, when the Common Council implemented an increase in parking ticket fines from a $20-$50-$100 tiered system to a new $50-$100-$150 price structure along with a renewed effort to collect delinquent tickets and start booting cars that had an excessive amount of outstanding tickets. The argument was that the city had a large number of people who weren’t bothering to pay their tickets and that a considerable amount of revenue was being lost because of this. To be fair the city did increase their revenue taken in from parking violations, going from roughly $247,000 collected in the 2011-2012 fiscal year to nearly $349,000 collected at the close of the 2015 fiscal year. This increase undoubtedly owes partial credit to the car booting system that forces people to pay their tickets before they can drive. However, no data is available to see just how much of that increase was due to booting delinquent motorists and how much of it was just money collected from the 150% increase in the cost of a basic Utica parking ticket.
I’m not here to argue that parking laws shouldn’t be enforced, that delinquent motorists shouldn’t be held accountable or that the City of Utica is in the wrong for trying to find as many ways as possible to increase revenue. I’m not going to say that the City has no right to enforce their own parking laws and fine the citizens who violate them. I’ll leave that line of argument up to all the local armchair anarchists to protest. I’m simply saying that there needs to be a level of fairness and common sense applied situationally based on circumstances. Not all Utica parking ticket violations are equal and they should not be fined as equals.
If you park in a fire zone, handicapped spot or blocking a driveway I think $50 is more than fair and you’re getting off easy. If you’re leaving your car on a quiet residential street overnight in fair weather, I think $50 is highway robbery. Utica is a city with many people doing their best to scrape by and for many people a $50 ticket is the difference between food on the table this week or doing without. If you make the same choice that most of us would, then that ticket you already couldn’t afford turns into being twice as expensive. If your living situation is such that you don’t always have room in your driveway to park or you end up blocking a sidewalk then you can very quickly find yourself owing the city $500 plus dollars with a boot on your car that prevents you from getting to the job where you’d make the money to dig yourself out of this hole in the first place. Like they say, being poor is expensive. I have to wonder how many of Utica’s roughly 20,000 unpaid parking tickets are unpaid because, in today’s trying economic times, more people than we’d like to admit are in a situation where they can’t part with $50 on 72 hours notice.
There is no all-encompassing answer that I can give to the issue of the Utica parking ticket. Parking violations do need to be enforced and fines do need to be collected. The city needs revenue to continue to keep its head above water and build on the momentum growing here. There needs to be a system in place that holds people accountable and doesn’t let the scofflaws get off scot-free while the law abiding citizens foot the bill. These are points we can all agree on. What I cannot agree with is $50 being the baseline starting point for even the most minor parking violations. It’s a band aid fix that doesn’t address the real problem at hand and, four years later, it’s time for the city to reconsider something that should’ve just been a bad April Fool’s Day joke on the day it launched.