Contractors "Renting" Parking from City, Bagging Meters

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COLUMBIA - When people see parking meters with red cloth bags or orange plastic bags over them, many think those meters are broken and the city is going to fix them. That's not the case. The bags have nothing to do with the condition of the meters and everything to do with the crews working around them.

"These are used to reserve the metered spots by contractors that are doing some type of work in the area where they need to park their construction vehicles or they need to park their construction equipment or dumpsters or things like that," said Steven Sapp, the Public Information Specialist for Columbia Public Works.

When contractors do their work in the downtown area, they can apply to "rent" metered parking spots from the city. If the contractor needs fewer than 48 hours, it would apply for a plastic covering. If it needs more time, a cloth covering is necessary. According to Section 107-314 of Ordinance 19036, the company pays a flat rate of $8.00 a day per single meter or $16.00 a day for double meters plus a $15.00 deposit per meter if the city accepts the application. Or if the contractor plans to rent the space for an extremely long time, it can pay $150.00 per month or $1,600 per year. The contractor can then park work vehicles in those spots since it compensated the city for them.

If regular drivers park in these spots, they are at risk for tow and a citation, but the Parking Enforcement Agents don't monitor those themselves. Sapp said the bagged spots are monitored on a complaint basis.

"So if the contractor arrives and finds that somebody not affiliated with his business has parked in that spot, he would contact our Parking Utility Office. They would send a Parking Enforcement Agent, and they would issue a citation and tow the vehicle," Sapp said.

Sapp said it is nearly 100 percent complaint driven because enforcement agents cannot tell which vehicles are supposed to be in those spots.

Contractors aren't the only ones allowed to rent these spots. According to the ordinance, private utility companies can rent spots for service vehicles. Churches and businesses can rent spots if they need them for business-related issues. The same prices apply. In addition, people who are handicapped, show a need for the spot because of employment, who are not transported via ambulance or who show a physician's certificate of need regarding their handicap can rent meters. Those meters cost $2.50 per day or $50.00 per month. Along the same lines, banks are allowed to bag metered spots on their own.

For instance, Landmark Bank in downtown Columbia bags several spots and reserves them for five minute parking for clients. But, like the contractors, the bank has to pay a flat fee to the city. Sapp said the new hotel on Broadway bought 100 spots in Short Street Parking Garage as well as a few spots along Broadway. These now have signs that reserve the parking for the hotel and in turn, the hotel pays. All of those meters will have bags on them, but they are still working properly.

"Meters that are out of service do not have any type of bag over them," Sapp said. "They may have a note from Parking Utility that says that the meter's out of service, but otherwise there's really no visual indicator of that."

Parking Supervisor Tanner Morrell said when meters actually are broken, it is the citizen's responsibility to report the malfunction to the Parking Utility Office. But he said the department often gives leeway.

"As long as we can verify that the meter is malfunctioning, we'll issue or we'll allow that person to park there without penalty," Morrell said.

Morrell said if an agent comes up to a metered spot that appears to be broken, the agent will check it out. Sometimes the color wheel will not work but the meter is still keeping time accurately. If the agent finds the meter really is malfunctioning and there is a car in the spot, Morrell said the agent will give the person the benefit of the doubt and once it's fixed, put enough money in the meter to pay for the full time the meter allows.

"We try to show some compassion in those situations because the person probably tried to pay the meter," Morrell said.

But with the covers, the enforcement agents do not give the person the benefit of the doubt because the bag says "Tow Away Zone" directly on it.

Sapp said, "Any time people see the orange bag over a meter or the bright red bag over a meter, they need to know not to park there."

To see the application for the cloth meters, click here. To see the application for the plastic meters, click here.