Sweeping Changes In Municipal Parking Policy Approved

OCEAN CITY – Public parking in Ocean City is going through a complete overhaul with sweeping changes including a new license plate-based system on the street and in the municipal lots including the Inlet lot, but there were still several issues to resolve on how best to implement the new system.

In December, the Mayor and Council approved a new state-of-the-art parking payment and enforcement system for the streets and municipal lots in the downtown area to the tune of nearly $600,000. The new system utilizes state-of-the-art license plate reader technology and will result in a switch from the current “pay and display” system to a “pay by plate” system.

Visitors and residents will still park wherever they find open spaces on the streets and municipal lots in the downtown area and visit a nearby kiosk to make payment arrangements for their desired time periods. However, instead of printing a receipt to be displayed on the dashboard of their vehicle, they will enter their license plate information. Parking enforcement officials will then be able to scan the vehicle’s license plate to determine if they have paid for parking and are not expired.

The system has been approved for on-street parking, the various municipal lots and the Inlet lot. However, at the time of the approval in December, there were still several questions about how it would actually be implemented. City Engineer Terry McGean and Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Captain Greg Guiton have been working with the vendor on some of the more pertinent issues. On Tuesday, they presented some of the options to the Mayor and Council.

On-Street And Municipal Lot Fines

Currently, the fine for an expired parking meter on the streets or in the municipal lots other than the Inlet lot is $15 if it is paid within 48 hours and $25 if paid after 48 hours. McGean explained with the new plate-based system, a resident or visitor will be allowed to add extra time when their meter is set to expire either from one of the kiosks or directly from their phone.

As a result, the staff recommendation is to raise the expired meter fine to a flat $50. However, a customer can arrive back at his or her vehicle, discover the meter has expired and a ticket has been issued. The customer can than pay for overage at a kiosk or by phone, thereby voiding the parking ticket. He said the concept is to increase compliance and have people pay for the time they use, and not necessarily to write more tickets.

“In some instances, it is less expensive to park for the day and pay the fine then it is to comply with the law,” he said. “The new parking system allows customers to add time at any kiosk location or through the phone. Because the enforcement software communicates directly with the pay-by-plate and pay-by-phone systems, it is possible to automatically void a ticket if a customer pays for their extra time even after the ticket is issued.”

The staff’s recommendation was to allow for a four-hour grace period to pay for the overage and void the ticket, but that suggestion gave heartburn to some on the council. Councilman John Gehrig said some people would simply not pay at all and wait to see if they got a ticket before deciding to pay.

“It’s like saying I’m going to try shoplifting, but if I get caught, I can just pay for the product,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

However, McGean used the same analogy to explain the reason for the proposed change.

“The goal is to sell the product, not prosecute people for shoplifting,” he said. “We don’t want to issue tickets. We just want you to pay for parking and enjoy the product.”

McGean cited a typical example of a customer’s parking running over in the summer and how the new system will allow him or her to pay for the time used to avoid a ticket.

“Just say you were out to dinner and lost track of the time,” he said. “You come out in five hours, but you’ve only paid for four. You can pay for the extra hour and void the ticket.”

McGean said raising the $15 fine to $50 was somewhat onerous, but the new system allowed customers to pay for their overages not pay the higher fine.

“We agree $50 is painful, but there is an option to pay for your extra time and avoid that,” he said.

Councilman Wayne Hartman essentially agreed the proposed policy was an invitation to avoid paying for parking altogether until one got a ticket.

“Basically, it’s like four hours of free parking in Ocean City unless you get a ticket,” he said. “I understand a half an hour or an hour, but to misjudge your parking by four hours doesn’t make any sense to me.”

After considerable debate, the council voted 7-0 to adopt the new policy regarding the $50 fine and the ability to pay for overages to void the ticket, but not before reducing the grace period from four hours to one hour.

“I’m thinking one hour is appropriate,” said Councilman Dennis Dare. “That allows for a mistake. Maybe you’re having a good time and lost track of time and you’re one hour over. That makes sense to me. That’s a good compromise.”

Handicap Parking Issues On The Street Or Municipal Lots

The existing CALE machines are not Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant, which is one of the reasons the city is moving to the new system. Under the old policy, because the meters were not ADA compliant, handicap parking on the streets and in the municipal lots was essentially free.

However, because the new system is ADA compliant, McGean explained the parking policy for handicapped individuals could be adjusted to have them start paying after an appropriate grace period of perhaps one hour.
“The feeling was going from completely free all day long to no accommodation for handicap parking whatsoever was too far to go,” he said.

“The recommendation is for a grace period of two or three hours and they begin to pay. That would allow them to go to the store or to dinner, but not the beach all day without paying.”

Gehrig suggested a compromise grace period for free handicap parking of one hour.

“One of the reasons to go to the new technology is they are ADA compliant,” he said. “I think we all recognize the challenges our disabled residents and visitors face. What about going with a one-hour grace period for handicap parking in all areas?”

Councilman Dennis Dare agreed with the one-hour grace period for handicap parking.

“I think this is a good compromise,” he said. “Our biggest responsibility is having those spaces reserved for them, but at the same time, having them available all day without paying takes them away from other people.”

After considerable debate, the council voted unanimously to adopt the one-hour grace period for free handicap parking.

Inlet Lot Issues

Perhaps the biggest changes with the new system will come at the Inlet parking lot, where the traditional gated system will be replaced with a combination of license plate readers (LPRs) at the entrance and exit to the lot and the new kiosks where residents and visitors can pay for parking. One issue dispensed with quickly was raising the hourly rate to a flat $3 per hour from April 1 to Oct. 31. Currently, the rate is $2 per hour in the shoulder seasons and $3 per hour during the peak season from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The council voted unanimously to raise the fee to a flat $3 per hour.

Another issue to resolve was how best to pay for Inlet parking. One option was to have the LPRs basically count how many vehicles have entered and how many have paid for parking through the kiosks or their phones. When a disparity was detected, actual enforcement officers could flood the lot and begin writing tickets for those who had not paid.

Another option was to go with a fully automated system. If the customers don’t pay to park using the kiosk or their phone, their license plates will be read when they enter and exit the Inlet lot and the time they spent in the lot will be calculated.

Those customers will then be sent through the male a bill for the number of hours in the lot times the new rate of $3 per hour plus a $25 administrative fee. If the customer does not pay the bill within a prescribed amount of time, it then becomes a parking ticket with all that entails. The council ultimately approved the second fully automated option.

Another issue, and one McGean said the staff wrestled with perhaps the most, is how to handle handicap parking in the Inlet lot with the fully automated system. The LPRs can read handicap license plates, but have no way of distinguishing which vehicles have standard license plates with handicap placards hanging from the rear-view mirror.

“A lot of handicapped individuals do not have handicap license plates,” said McGean. “There is no way at the Inlet for the LPRs to distinguish who has a handicap placard in the window. Right now, there is a 30-minute grace period in general and a 60-minute grace period for the handicapped.”

However, that would not solve the issue of how to charge those with handicap placards after their one-hour grace period was up. McGean said the recommendation was to bill all customers the same using the same formula explained earlier with the hourly rate times the amount of time on the Inlet lot plus the $25 administrative fee. Those with legitimate handicap placards could then mail the bill back to the city with a photo copy of their placards and the tickets would then be voided.

Hartman voiced concern it would be challenging for those with handicap placards to receive the bill in the mail, somehow make a photo copy of their placard and mail everything back to the town of Ocean City to be voided.

The recommendation was to allow the existing one-hour grace period for handicap vehicles with placards and allow them to male back their bills with the photo-copied placards if they were charged for one hour. After considerable debate, the council voted to reduce the grace period for handicap vehicles at the Inlet lot to the same 30 minutes other vehicles enjoy and not mail the bills requiring proof of handicap placards.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.