Our View: Clear the air on vague charter provisions

Our View: Clear the air on vague charter provisions

(File photo)

It’s tempting to ignore a law, ordinance or rule that we view as wrongheaded or obsolete — particularly if there’s not a significant penalty attached to non-compliance. We generally obey traffic laws and pay our taxes, partially because we are supposed to and partly because penalties for major violations are severe.

But how many hunters obey Virginia’s law against hunting any species other than raccoons on Sundays? And how many Alexandrians are secretly harboring a fifth cat, in flagrant violation of city ordinance?

While we laugh at silly regulations, what’s ridiculous is often in the eye of the beholder. In a society based on the rule of law, if too many people ignore ordinances they don’t like, the social order can crumble. For the sake of good governance, unnecessary laws should be repealed and confusing ones amended. Laws that remain on the books should be enforced.

Viewed in this light, the current debate between the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce and city council over the use of parking meter revenues is straightforward: either amend the section of the city’s charter that requires parking meter revenues be spent on parking or comply with it.

At issue is section 2.03 of the charter, which says revenues from parking meters should be spent “…for any public purpose incident to the acquisition, maintenance or provision of places for the parking and storage of vehicles by the public at any location in the city.”

The chamber of commerce says the city is in violation of the charter, because parking meter revenues aren’t set aside for parking expenditures, but instead go into the city’s general fund. One of the chamber’s priorities is increasing the quantity of parking in Alexandria’s high traffic areas so it is easier for residents and visitors to patronize the city’s various businesses.

City council and staff have responded that expenditures on parking enforcement and maintenance, at $4,280,481, exceed the $3,961,700 collected from meters, so the point is essentially moot. Their argument is that expenditures on parking are not being short-changed.

But looked at more broadly, the data doesn’t fully support the city’s contention, as Alexandria rakes in an additional $3,782,508 in revenue from parking tickets and decal sales. That means Alexandria took in $7,744,208 in direct parking revenue last year — almost $3.5 million more than was spent on parking enforcement and maintenance.

City staffers argue that paving and maintenance of roads, on which the city spends millions more each year, should also be included in the equation. While it’s a stretch to say that pot holes filled in the middle of Duke or Beauregard streets are parking related, certainly some portion of road paving expenses benefits parking.

Different accounting methods can be used to bolster each side of this debate, and what is actually a parking expense will remain elusive. But the language in the city charter is in line with the chamber’s objective of prioritizing spending on parking.

We see three options for the city:

1. Ask the General Assembly for permission to abolish the parking spending requirement in the city charter and continue operating as it has.

2. Ask for permission to amend the charter and expand it to include all revenue generated directly from parking, i.e. include money from decals and tickets, and spend all of it on parking improvements. Or amend the charter in the other direction, to say expenditures should be used on parking and road maintenance, or transportation as a whole.

3. Comply with the charter as written. Continuing to ignore the charter, or interpreting it in a way that clearly conflicts with what it says, is the one path that’s not acceptable. Laws need to be changed or obeyed.