Members of Alexandria’s disabled community have called into question one of the pillars of a potential new city policy charging them to park after having a free pass for years.
Police officers conducted a survey of parked handicapped motorists earlier in the year, approaching every driver parked in a designated spot who was not obviously disabled, said Deputy Chief Blaine Corle. They found nine out of every 10 handicapped drivers approached was violating state law, even if they had a placard hanging from their mirror, he said.
In their quest to overhaul parking management in Old Town, which would break with tradition by charging handicapped motorists, city officials have drawn heavily on the abuse rate to make their case. But Chuck Benagh, chairman of Alexandrias Commission on Persons with Disabilities, believes the numbers arent telling the whole story.
Im all for cutting the abuse, but you dont cut the abuse by eliminating [benefits for the handicapped], he said. There certainly is abuse of the placards or tags Im not denying that at all but some of the estimates on the amount of the abuse are grossly exaggerated.
Though touted as fact, the figure doesnt come from a formal study, said Jody Donaldson, police department spokesman. The 90 percent abuse claim only gauges crimes witnessed by police officers. It’s a start, but police can’t document crimes they don’t see, and Corle said the police department does not have an exact abuse rate.
Still, an addendum to the council’s 2011 legislative packet regarding handicapped parking cites the city’s “analysis that up to 90% of the people using handicap parking are not legitimate users of this service.”
Officers targeted shopping areas like Hoffman Center that were already notorious for handicap parking violations, Donaldson said.
The city council shelved implementing an ordinance forcing handicapped motorists to pay for parking November 9, giving Benaghs commission time to investigate further. Hes formed a subcommittee to study the abuse rate, among other issues swirling in the all may park, all must pay debate.
We elect [city council members] to make those decisions, but at the same time they really ought to be able to base this on accurate information and be representative of all of the citizens in the community, Benagh said. We may end up verifying their assessment, but I dont think that will be the case. Were not trying to slant anything with our study either.
The ACPD wont need to look much further than the Carlyle neighborhood, according to Baier. He conducted an unscientific study of the area last year and found one out of every four spots were occupied by vehicles with a handicapped placard. On Jamieson Street, disabled motorists filled nearly 30 percent of available parking, he said.
Go on Craigslist, go on the Internet and you can find places where you can buy hang-tags for handicapped parking and people buy them, said TES Director Rich Baier. What we are actually seeing is that it seems like a high percentage of our parking is being used for people who are parking with hang-tags its a little bit extraordinary.
Parking spots are more than just apportioned pavement in Old Town, the citys shopping Mecca. Each space represents a city resource, generating $125 to $135 annually and when motorists abuse the system, theyre costing the city, Baier said.
Baier said this summer in an interview with the Times that charging disabled motorists is about enforcement, not to raise revenue.
We constantly get complaints about how [we] need a better management system and were spending $1.25 million on new parking meters and all these people are parking for free, Baier said.
If thats the case and Benagh isnt conceding it yet the solution is better enforcement, not forcing handicapped motorists to pay for parking.
Only sworn officers can verify handicapped parking violations under Virginia law. Alexandria doesnt have enough officers to assign a detail to chasing down handicapped parking fraud, said Councilman Rob Krupicka.
Hes working with Del. David Englin (D-45) to push for a change in Richmond. Allowing parking enforcement officers to check handicapped placards would go a long way to resolving the issue, Krupicka said.
Right now we are constrained as only police officers can enforce the validity of disabled parking permit and thats a pretty limited resource.
The city council will readdress the handicapped-parking ordinance within the next 60 days. While ACPD voted unanimously to reject the citys last proposal, Benagh pledges to continue cooperating with officials. He just questions the need for this debate now.
Its so complicated, its so crazy, Benagh said. Theres no easy way to restrict people with a valid handicap, valid disabilities. It makes sense to allow people to have equal access to things.