Villaraigosa seeks another boost in parking ticket fines

Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa is pursuing another big boost in parking ticket fines, leaving some of them 70% to 90% more expensive than the year he was elected — and several times the region’s inflation rate.

With the latest proposed hikes, the city would collect about $40 million a year more than during Villaraigosa’s first year in office, much of it from street-sweeping violations that leave many residents fuming.

The mayor’s budget calls for the street-sweeping penalty to reach $78, more than in any neighboring city and, in certain cases, nearly twice the amount charged elsewhere in Los Angeles County.

If the City Council approves the proposed increase, the sixth in the last seven years, the cost of a street-sweeping violation will have risen 73% since 2005, the year Villaraigosa was elected. Other penalties, such as for parking in a fire lane or too close to a fire hydrant, will have grown between 82% and 94% in the Villaraigosa era.

The mayor and City Council have turned time and again to parking infractions to help balance the city’s budget, which this year faces a $238-million shortfall. Villaraigosa’s office says a proposed $10 increase to an array of parking fines would make a small but important dent in the deficit.

But there is a growing push-back to the ever-increasing fines, particularly from those who argue they are really a regressive tax on those who live in densely populated areas.

Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, an organization that advocates on behalf of low-income renters, said parking tickets — especially those issued on street-sweeping day — disproportionately affect working-class families in Koreatown, Westlake and other neighborhoods packed with apartment buildings and too few parking spaces, he said.

“The burden is felt hardest by those who can least afford to pay,” he said.

Villaraigosa spokesman Peter Sanders did not respond to that assertion, saying instead that parking fines make up only 3% of the city’s revenue base. He said in a statement that the Department of Transportation, which issues the tickets, needs to reach its financial targets “so that vital city services can be preserved.”

The hikes already have far outpaced inflation, which rose in Southern California by less than 18% since 2005, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. Shacola Thompson, who lives in North Hollywood, said the $68 ticket she received last month was painful enough.

“There are a lot of things I could do with that money,” said the 23-year-old secretary. “I could pay a phone bill. I could go out and shop. That could be my movie ticket money.”

Of the $134 million collected in parking fines last year, more than one-third came from cars illegally parked during street-cleaning hours — when lumbering city trucks swoosh through neighborhoods scooping up accumulated dirt and refuse from gutters.

The dance of car owners, sweepers and parking-enforcement officers plays out hundreds of times each week across the city, when half the parking on a block disappears for a few hours. The next day, the other half disappears.

Motorists frequently gamble that they will remember to race out and move their vehicles before the sweepers — and ticket patrols — arrive.

Sarah Lopez, 23, didn’t beat the clock. The Koreatown resident said her late-night job as a cashier ends around midnight at the earliest on street-sweeping days. She gets back so late that parking near her home is taken — forcing her to circle three or four blocks looking for a spot.

Last week, she parked her car in a street-sweeping zone after deciding it was too dangerous to walk four blocks to her apartment so late at night. “I was just tired of looking for parking,” she said. “I wanted to go home.”

She overslept and found a $68 ticket waiting for her.

As the cost of tickets has climbed, so has the amount of money pouring into city coffers. Parking-ticket revenue was $110 million in 2005. That will reach $150 million this year if the latest increases go into effect, according to the mayor’s budget proposal.

Although the city’s take is up, the number of tickets has steadily declined, records show. Traffic officers are expected to issue 2.5 million tickets this year, down from 3.2 million six years ago.

Not every city has followed Los Angeles’ lead. Torrance and El Segundo have kept their street-sweeping fines at $43. Pasadena charges $46.50. Officials in South Pasadena, Malibu and Rancho Palos Verdes said they do not issue street-sweeping tickets.

Jaime de la Vega, who runs the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, said the violations targeted for increases by Villaraigosa involve public safety, such as blocking a fire hydrant. He said motorists who park illegally on street-cleaning day create hazards for the sweepers.

“It’s a big issue, because we don’t want [city] drivers to rear-end a car that they’re not expecting,” he said.

Restaurant server Alex Perez, 29, has a different theory. He says the higher fines are an attempt by city officials to “squeeze all the citizens.”

Lauri Meadows, who lives near USC, got a ticket last month and has little sympathy for City Hall’s financial woes. “The city claims that they’re broke,” said Meadows, who is unemployed. “I don’t understand how they’re broke when they’re ticketing everybody all the time.”

Not everyone directs their anger at city officials. Joon Park, 55, blamed herself for the ticket she recently received across the street from her day-care business. She wasn’t happy to learn of the latest increases, but she had no plans to fight them.

“We are working. We are middle-aged,” she said. “We don’t have any power.”