By JAMIE HANSEN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Those people in Santa hats and red sweatshirts are at it again, feeding expired parking meters in downtown Santa Rosa and Railroad Square to save folks from a $35 parking ticket.
For many business owners and shoppers, the so-called Meter Beaters, who are paid by the owner of G&C AutoBody, provide a short holiday reprieve from what they say are the city’s chronic and infuriating parking meter problems.
And when one of the holiday do-gooders, Robert Traviss, had a run-in with a parking enforcement officer on Monday, he and G&C Auto Body Owner Gene Crozat took it as a sign that City Hall was opposing the feel-good freebies, as it had done in the early years of the program two decades ago. The officer reportedly issued a parking ticket for a vehicle even though Traviss had just bought more time.
City officials were quick to say they supported the Meter Beater program and that their general policy is to stay out of the way. They said that a new employee unfamiliar with the program had already entered the violation when Traviss approached her, but that it wouldn’t happen again.
“We generally wouldn’t write a ticket in that situation,” said Kim Nadeau, Santa Rosa’s parking manager. “We feel it’s a fun promotion,” she added. “It brings goodwill to downtown shoppers.”
Many merchants said such goodwill is a needed antidote to downtown parking problems. For years, visitors have complained about having to pay for parking when it is free in every other Sonoma County city. Merchants also question why the two-hour time limit for the spaces outside their stores can’t be extended to allow people more time to run errands.
A particular source of angst for business owners continues to be the city’s parking kiosks. These paper-based pay stations enable people to use credit cards instead of scrounging for coins but can be confusing for shoppers.
Maria Philbin owns Le Jardinier, a garden and floral store in Railroad Square that is going out of business. She said people parking outside her store do not understand that they have to pay because there is not a meter in front of their parking spot. Sometimes, people have received a ticket by the time they’ve figured out how to pay for their spot, she said. Other times, the credit card readers simply don’t work. She hears “bitter complaints” from shoppers all the time, she said, adding, “I feel it’s a detriment to shopping ease.”
The kiosks, which the city began installing in 2008, have reduced the number of citations issued by about a third, presumably by making it easier for people to pay, said city staff. But after downtown merchants circulated a petition advocating for the return of single-space meters, the city tested out a new model that allows people to pay with credit cards. This month, the Santa Rosa City Council approved a plan to install the single-space meters in a six-block area running from B to E Street and from Third to Fifth Street.
For now, they’ll will be limited to that area. Nadeau said a second phase could include installing new meters in Railroad Square, but only after the city studies the cost and finds a way to pay for them.
Travis Kennedy, owner of Daredevils and Queens, a salon and barbershop in Railroad Square, said customers complain about the kiosks but also about the two-hour time limit. They sometimes have to leave his salon with foil in their hair to feed the meter and avoid a ticket, he said.
“It’s like they want (shoppers) to be here, but they also want them to hurry up and get out.”
Nadeau, the city parking official, said that a main goal of parking enforcement is to create turnover in parking spaces, especially in the limited spaces outside stores. Enforcing a two-hour time limit allows for more turnover.
“The bottom line is that the more turnover we have in spaces, the more accessibility there is for people coming downtown,” she said. She added that time limits are much longer in the city’s five parking garages, where it is also cheaper to park.
Some shoppers and store owners were more sympathetic to the city’s parking enforcement efforts.
“It’s cheaper than San Francisco,” said Daisy Austin, who was shopping and dining in Railroad Square with her father on Tuesday. Street parking in San Francisco costs $2 to $6 an hour, compared to $1 an hour in Santa Rosa.
Justine Malone, who owns Cast Away Yarn Shop in Railroad Square, said she gets many complaints from customers about the cost and inconvenience of parking. Her sales dropped off at about the same time the kiosk meters went in, she said.
“But the argument the city makes is that with a town of (more than) 150,000, you’re just gonna have parking meters,” she said. “That makes sense to me.”
Getting a parking ticket is what prompted G&C AutoBody owner Gene Crozat to start the Meter Beater program.
“I thought, no one should go through this,” Crozat said.
Now, he pays about 10 people to canvas the downtown and buy additional time for those whose meters are about to expire. The program started Monday and will continue through Christmas Eve.
“I just want people at Christmas to say I can go eat a sandwich, shop downtown and I won’t get fleeced in Santa Rosa,” Crozat said.
He he spends from $15,000 to $20,000 feeding meters in the two weeks leading up to Christmas. “It’s good for my business,” he said, “and it’s a win for everybody.”
(You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter at @JamieHansen.)