In New York City, they're throwing chump change at a $4 billion budget gap by fining 86-year-old men for illegally feeding pigeons, and teenagers for sitting on unauthorized milk crates.
In Denver, where next year's budget deficit is projected at $50 million, they nailed Larry Barnhart for trying to sell his car.
Barnhart considers himself a law-abiding fellow. So when he drove into downtown Denver from his home in Littleton three Mondays ago, he duly plugged the parking meter at 15th and Lawrence streets, pushing in quarter after quarter until he'd bought himself two hours of time. And then he went about his business.
Ninety minutes later, his errands complete, Barnhart returned to his van -- now festooned with a ticket. It wasn't for an expired meter; there were still thirty minutes showing on that. It wasn't for parking too far from the curb, or for a missing license plate, or for an expired emissions sticker -- all violations so common that they're listed on the Parking Violations Bureau's pre-printed tickets. No, Barnhart was cited for "For Sale Sign on Car," a violation of city ordinance 54-463.
Barnhart may be a law-abiding fellow, but he's also a curious one, and this law sounded very odd to him. So after searching in vain on the city's Web site for any information, he sent an e-mail to the address on the ticket, asking for details.
"You cannot solicit a vehicle for sale on city property," came the anonymous reply.
Which means that Barnhart had broken the law when he parked his 1986 Ford van, which had a "For Sale" sign in the window, at a downtown meter. In fact, he'd broken the law simply by driving that van into Denver at all.
"You would need to come in person or have someone come in person for you to contest the violation," anonymous continued. "The parking referee's office is open M-F 8am-4:30pm it is a walk in service."
Walk in, because you won't be able to drive there if your car has had a close encounter with the Denver boot.
Anyone who's not as law-abiding as Larry Barnhart probably knows about the Denver boot. And any scofflaw who's been parking downtown for two decades, as I have, knows all about it -- knows exactly how many tickets you have to get and how old they must be before you land on the boot list; knows when the boot truck patrols which neighborhoods and when it stops for the day; knows that while most private lots won't boot, some city lots managed by private companies are fair game for the boot truck (the Republic lots just off Speer at the edge of LoDo, for example); knows what to do once you've been nabbed. (One Westword employee collapsed in a heap on Wazee Street, where our office was located at the time, when she saw that her car had been booted for $700 in outstanding tickets -- far more than the car was worth. She let the city tow it into oblivion and never looked back.)
Parking czars like John Oglesby come and go. But the infernal boot, Denver's most notorious invention, remains eternal.
Still, for all my vast and intensely personal parking-ticket experience, I didn't know that ordinance 54-463 could apply to someone who'd used his for-sale vehicle to drive downtown and park at a meter. I had to hear Barnhart tell it to the judge -- or at least a parking-ticket referee.
Parking referees work outside the dreaded Division of Parking Management, as part of the Denver County Court. A very busy part. In early 2002, after Oglesby raised downtown parking-meter prices to a "world-class-city" level almost overnight and then threatened to do the same in other parts of town, the city's parking policies exploded into a full-blown scandal. Even before Oglesby left the city's employ, the parking division, which is located in the Department of Public Works, was prohibited from ripping up any more tickets, no matter how wrong a parking employee might have been to issue them, no matter if they happened to have been issued to Oglesby's car. And the Denver County Court, which had already been charged with handling any in-person citizen complaints over tickets, now assumed responsibility for all contested parking tickets.
The court's parking referees are currently located on the seventh floor of the Colorado State University Building, at 110 16th Street. When you enter, the court official directing traffic -- foot traffic, of course -- checks to make sure you're in the right place (if you just want to pay your ticket, you can go straight to the cashier) and gives you a number.
The man directing traffic last Wednesday looked familiar, and with good reason: He was the patient referee who had to listen to so many Westword stories two decades ago, back when the referee operated out of a tiny courtroom in the City & County Building and lower downtown had yet to be nicknamed LoDo...much less get a parking lot.
But for all the times we'd shared our tales of woe with the parking-ticket referee, we'd never had a story as good as Barnhart's. So when his number was up, I went with him to see the referee.
She told him what he now knew: that you cannot solicit a vehicle for sale on city property -- unless it happens to be parked in front of your primary residence, a loophole that did the Littleton resident no good. Never mind that the ordinance was intended to keep busy city thoroughfares and parks from serving as used-car lots, not to discourage law-abiding suburbanites from ever returning to a city that uses obscure ordinances as a way for meter readers to meet their ticket quotas. Barnhart could have fought the ticket, taken it to a grown-up courtroom -- hell, taken it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- but instead he accepted the $5 discount the referee offered on the $20 ticket, paid his $15 debt to society, and that was that.
"I thought there would be limitations to the law," Barnhart says. "This reinforces what John Hickenlooper was saying about Denver being hostile to business in general.... If the city would stop beating up on businesses, it would have significant improvement."
Barnhart is an independent businessman who designs databases for small companies (he just finished creating a circulation system for a suburban newspaper). In his spare time, he likes to think about things: He wrote a book, A Farm Boy's Testament to the United Nations, as a hobby, encapsulating what he had learned about economics and ethics over the years. "I run my whole life with a database," he adds.
That database includes information that "calculates my cost of ownership per month," he says. And when his Buick LaSabre -- "quite the maintenance hog" -- died recently, he started driving the 1986 Ford, which he'd tricked out like a motor home, around town until he located a replacement for his primary vehicle. The 1987 Toyota van he found looked so promising on his database that he decided to sell the Ford, "which has stuff I've concluded that I really don't need," he says, "and I'd prefer someone who likes this stuff have it." So that's why the "For Sale" sign was in the van's window when he parked at that meter at 15th and Lawrence.
The $20 ticket didn't fit into his fleet-maintenance database. Neither did his trip downtown to fight it. "No, that was recreation," he says.
Or maybe it was opportunity knocking -- for both Barnhart and a city badly in need of a budget fix. Maybe not as badly in need as New York, where the police union is so humiliated by the penny ante tickets being issued that it's started a "Don't Blame the Cop" campaign. Maybe not so badly needed that Denver's new mayor can't consider a parking-meter rollback. But in need nonetheless.
"So I'm thinking about getting a contract like the photo-radar company," Barnhart says. He'd outfit a van with a camera, just like the private vans that capture speeders on film for the city, and keep a close watch out for any cars with "For Sale" signs in their windows that dare to venture out onto the mean streets of Denver. "It would be fun to do a proposal for enforcement of ordinance 54-463 at a 50 percent cut," he adds. "The city would make money, and we'd give our 50 percent to a charity, or several charities." And everyone cited for driving around town with an illegal sign would get invited to a party that Barnhart would throw.
Call it the "Nonsense of Government Party," after the come-from-behind candidate for mayor of Denver won the city's top slot with a campaign that poked fun at Denver's parking policies and promised to cut the nonsensical red tape of government.
"Know the etymology of 'politics'?" Barnhart asks.
"Poly is many, and ticks are bloodsuckers."
Some days you can't see the forest for the trees.
John Frew looked over at the Auraria Parkway a few days ago and couldn't believe what he was seeing: a big "up yours." The city was planting Washington hawthorns right where it had removed 32 trees last Labor Day weekend, when the foliage interfered with the sightlines of some of the priciest seats at the Grand Prix.
Frew, who heads the Grand Prix, had been worried about those trees for weeks, and race officials had discussed them repeatedly with the city's parks department, asking for a little pruning here, some transplanting there. But it took complaints from the big-ticket holders -- complaints heard right at the mayor's office -- to chop through a thicket of city bureaucracy at the very last second, when there was no time left for halfway measures.
The trees came down, even as weak excuses were offered up. Half of the trees were dead anyway, the city said, and others were suffering from stress. And how had the workers who'd been prettying up Denver for a month in anticipation of a big meeting-planners' convention that month failed to notice sixteen dead trees? "They don't go out and take their pulse every day," responded then-mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson.
Once city and race officials took the pulse of the city's populace, though, damage control was quick. The Grand Prix promised to replace the trees at a three-to-one ratio, more than enough to repopulate Auraria Parkway and provide trees for other spots, too. The money was put in escrow last September, in anticipation of a spring assessment of the city's drought situation.
But even before Denver Water's announcement Monday night that some restrictions -- a very few -- might be lifted, the city's forester had gone ahead and ordered new trees planted all along Auraria Parkway. The beautification project came just before another big meeting hit town -- this week's U.S. Conference of Mayors -- and without any advance warning to Frew.
"It was a very targeted, direct 'up yours' message to a business entity from the city forestry department," he says. "There are still trees all over the city lying in ruins from the storm...and they did this?"
The time was right, responds city forester Jude O'Connor. "The pressure as far as planting during the drought was over," she says. "We felt it was important to get in and restore the landscape."
So that the landscape could suffer the stress of another Grand Prix season? "We're worried about stress in every tree everywhere," she explains. "We have a lot of problems, and we're still cleaning things up. Drought stress is not going to manifest itself until the heat of the summer."
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Frew is manifesting stress right now.
He'd already reconfigured Grand Prix seating to make sure there would be no complaints this year about the sightlines, and created stands like the Rockpile right by the pits. So the new trees won't bother the Grand Prix -- but the Grand Prix is almost certain to bother the new trees. Frew says he talked with some of the workers doing the planting, and even they agreed it was crazy.
"We're just trying to do business," he says. "We're finishing an economic-impact thing right now. At the very minimum, without costing the city a dime, we brought in between $10 million and $30 million. Most parts of the city have been just wonderful to work with. But it doesn't matter what the mayor thinks, it doesn't matter what anyone thinks, because this third-level bureaucrat has decided she's in charge of city policy. For some reason, they continue to kick the Grand Prix."
Gentlepeople, start your engines.