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Council members refer to trial parking meters as ‘Big Brother’

It was raining, but the woman leaving the spot still popped out of her car to tell Sarah Beemer there was time left on the meter. More than enough time – 34 minutes – for Beemer to run across the street to pick up her alterations at Nordstrom. She took the spot.

“People pay it forward in Spokane,” said Beemer, 51. “I appreciate that kindness.”

Soon, this act of kindness may no longer be available to motorists looking for street parking downtown.

New coin- and credit card-accepting meters arrive this summer and will be equipped with sensors that will detect when a vehicle comes and goes, zeroing out the meter when it leaves and beginning a countdown when it parks. If no payment is registered during a five-minute grace period, the meter will automatically notify parking enforcement officials.

“That’s worrisome,” Beemer said of the alert feature, dumping a quarter into the meter just to be safe. “That’s upping the game. … It’s a revenue builder for the city, but it’s a little bit usury for me. It’s an economic benefit, and that’s about it.”

On Monday, the City Council will vote to allow Milwaukee-based Duncan Solutions a 60-day “validation,” or testing period. Some council members have already expressed unease with the technology, but will go ahead with the plan.

“It’s more of a Big Brother than I’d like,” Council President Ben Stuckart said of the alert sent to parking officers, officially known as the My Spokane Parking Services Team. “I’m going to be following this validation pretty close.”

Councilman Mike Allen has similar doubts.

“It’s very Big Brother-ish, a little bit,” he said. “But some people would call it efficiency. It’s not like we’re monitoring you. We’re monitoring your vehicle.”

The goal of the sensors is to modernize downtown parking, according to Julie Happy, a city spokeswoman.

“The technology is so new, it has many capabilities,” she said. “Our intent is not to increase the amount of tickets we write. It is just to have a better parking meter system, and to have a better parking experience.”

For instance, the sensors won’t simply alert enforcers to freeloading wayward parkers. It will signal when someone parks in front of a fire hydrant or blocks a fire lane. When someone pulls away and the meter zeroes out, the remaining funds will go to “improving the environment” downtown.

“That means sidewalks and parks,” Happy said. “Also street trees, tree grates, tree lights, street lights, crosswalks and striping. It will not be used for paving streets.”

Happy noted that everything regarding the sensors and meters is still up in the air. Throughout the validation, parking and city officials will decide how best to use the meters and sensors, or if to use them at all. If it goes as planned, 800 new meters will line downtown streets by the holiday season, all equipped with sensors.

Stuckart said he was concerned that the sensors haven’t been tested or deployed anywhere else in the country.

“The only place that has any Duncan sensors is Sydney, Australia,” he said.

Spokane’s contentious relationship with parking meters goes back to 1939, when the City Council approved installing meters on a test basis and was immediately sued by a local hosiery dealer. The state Supreme Court heard the case, ruled in favor of the city and paved the way for meters across the state.

“I think it’s garbage,” said Erin Holthaus, 37, plugging a meter for her yellow Hummer H3. “I’m all for following the law, and I’m glad we’re getting new meters, but they’re stealing somebody else’s money. They’re taking it for something that we didn’t pay for.”

“I think it sucks,” said Pat King, 56, as she re-upped her meter. “It’s an invasion of privacy.”



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