When the calendars flipped from June to July, Buffalo received a new distinction: It assesses the least expensive fines for parking tickets of any major city in upstate New York.
Syracuse jacked up the cost of most parking tickets by $5 at the beginning of July, and the cost of parking illegally in a space for the handicapped – the biggest change – increased by $25.
So the changes by Syracuse have sent Buffalo – which Forbes magazine already ranked as the nation’s most affordable city – to the top of the upstate list in an unusual category.
“We think our rates are fair and currently have no plans at this time to increase the fines. … We don’t use parking fines with the intent on raising revenues for the city,” Kevin J. Helfer, the Buffalo parking commissioner and former mayoral candidate, responded in an email. “We use our fine structure as a way of making sure citizens comply with the ordinances so we can continue to protect the safety and welfare of our citizenry.”
Buffalo’s primary parking fines are as follows: overtime at a meter, $30; no-parking zone, $35; parking fewer than 15 feet from a fire hydrant, $50; and unauthorized parking in a space for the handicapped, $100.
With only one exception – Syracuse also charges $30 for overtime at a meter – each of those rates is now less than the same penalty in Syracuse, Albany and Rochester. The greatest gap among the group is the charge for blocking a fire hydrant. Albany imposes a fine of $115, which is $65 more than Buffalo.
The parking situation in Buffalo may sound like a sweet deal for local motorists, but a lot of them think otherwise.
“I know enforcement is there to do a job, but many times they are unfair,” said Phillip B. Ciallela, an Elmwood Village resident. “I’m shocked we’re the lowest because of how bad it is. It does make it somewhat easier to swallow, but now that it’s out there, I can definitely see and wouldn’t be shocked if they raised it.”
Elmwood Village is one of those Buffalo neighborhoods where little off-street parking is available and motorists must regularly move their vehicles to the other side of the street to comply with rules on alternate-side parking.
Buffalo News archives indicate that the city’s structure of fines has not changed since 2002 – before then, the cheapest tickets were $10 – and it appears it will stay that way for the foreseeable future.
Buffalo collected an estimated net revenue of $9.6 million last year from parking violations, according to the city’s adopted budget for 2013-14. That money goes into the city’s general fund, which pays fringe benefits and is distributed to departments such as police and fire. Approximately 180,000 parking summonses were written last year by the city’s five parking enforcement officers.
Darius Shahinfar, city treasurer in Albany, said his city would consider revising its structure of fines after hearing about those in other cities.
Changing the fines, Shahinfar said, “is something we might want to consider. We might want to look at why is our hydrant fine so much higher than Syracuse and Buffalo? Why is our handicap fine two-thirds of what it is in Rochester?”
Albany’s fines are likely more expensive than those of Buffalo because of the demand for parking spaces, Shahinfar said, calling it a somewhat market-based system.
“I’ve heard the status of downtown Buffalo is kind of back,” he said, “and with that, we might see an increase in parking fines.”
Parking is a lucrative operation statewide; Albany, for example made $2.5 million from money put into parking meters alone last year.
The Syracuse Post-Standard reported that the increase in fines in the Salt City is expected to raise an additional $570,000 this year – a 22 percent increase over last year.
It’s also a controversial business, at least in this area.
A common complaint is that there is insufficient off-street parking in the Queen City. Many streets do not have driveways, so residents often end up parking a good distance from home.
Ciallela, the Elmwood Village resident, said that despite the lack of parking spaces in the city – particularly in the area in which he lives – ticketing officers are “ruthless” and unsympathetic.
“Especially with the lack of parking spots around Elmwood, you would think they would give people some leeway,” Ciallela said.
Businesses on and around Elmwood Avenue also are affected.
Lisa B. Hennig, co-owner of the Globe Market, often hears complaints from patrons: “No place to park, the parking is terrible.”
“People don’t have time to drive around and look for spots,” Hennig said. “And a lot of times, there are none.”
Hennig said that if Buffalo decided it wanted to make a change, it could. She alluded to the availability of parking in cities such as Toronto and Bethesda, Md., and said Buffalo would need to take a piece of land or eliminate one street to develop it into parking – or it could provide shuttle service to busy areas.
“The issue with Buffalo is, we’re very excited about the development, which really is great, but the city hasn’t looked at the infrastructure,” Hennig said. “We haven’t had to deal with this in years – with, what do we do with this density? We haven’t really looked at those issues.”
Predictably, many people say they would prefer that Buffalo’s parking fines stay exactly the way they are – as inexpensive as possible. Some think that would make sense to slightly increase the fines to raise money for the city, recently ranked the fourth-poorest city in the nation by the U.S. Census Bureau.
It is not clear if more parking ticket funding, however, could greatly help the city. The money goes into a general fund, the same as in Albany, which Shahinfar said “pays whatever bills we’ve got that month.”
Taylor J. Gesel, a SUNY Buffalo State student, is one of the few who supports some increases. He received a $35 ticket for having an expired inspection sticker while his car was parked in Buffalo in August 2013. He said that the ticket was fair and that it prompted him to have his car inspected the next day.
Gesel, who also lives and works in Buffalo, believes that it would be rational for the city to increase fines for blocking a fire hydrant and unauthorized parking in a space for the handicapped to stimulate funding for other needs.
“As for the no-parking zones or expired meters, those I would hope stay lenient,” Gesel said, “because parking signs are hard enough to decipher what you can and cannot do.”
In Buffalo, people have eight days to pay a parking ticket before the fine increases. Typically, it goes up by a little more than half – $30 tickets increase to $45, $35 to $55 and $50 to $85.
In Albany, people are given 20 days, and then the fine doubles.
It’s also 20 days in Syracuse, where fines go from $30 to $45, $40 to $65, $55 to $95 and $105 to $180.
In Rochester, residents have 30 days to pay a ticket, then a $40 infraction turns into $75, $50 to $95 and $105 to $190.
The State Legislature has passed a bill to allow plea bargaining in Buffalo’s settlement of traffic violations – meaning that drivers could argue that their fines should be reduced, and serious violators could attend driving school to keep points off their record and their insurance rates stable.