Free Rides

If you were to speculate about the people who do business in the downtown US West office building based on the cars parked immediately around it, you'd think that 64 percent of them were physically disabled. On a recent business day, an average of 14 of the 22 available metered spaces outside the building at 18th and California streets were occupied by vehicles bearing handicapped placards or license plates--tags that allow people to park in one spot all day long, free of charge.

The concentration of handicapped placards outside US West is high, but it's not unique. And that's why Denver City Council member Joyce Foster says she's pushing an ordinance adjustment that she hopes will free up the meters and put an extra couple hundred thousand dollars annually in the city's coffers.

"Of the 4,000 meters downtown," says Foster, "parking management estimates that at least a thousand are being abused every day by people with handicapped placards. So if this adjustment goes through, there are going to be a lot of upset people who won't be able to park for free anymore."

Because some people with disabilities are unable to use their hands to put coins in meters, state law says that no handicapped person is required to pay to park on the street. But Tom Reilly, deputy director of Denver's Parking Management Division, argues that the free parking tempts people to abuse the privilege. "If you're parking for free at a meter all day, every day, we're talking about beating the system for thousands of dollars every year," says Reilly. "If someone was to break into your car, the handicap placard is probably the most valuable thing they could steal."

Even spokesmen for the disabled acknowledge that there are abuses of the precious placard. Frank Nelson, director of the Mayor's Commission for People With Disabilities, says he's had two placards stolen from his vehicle. But that's not the only problem. Although the placards are supposed to be assigned only to people with severe mobility impediments, says Nelson, some doctors will give permits to almost anyone. "I hear about doctors giving placards to old people based on their age alone," says Nelson. "They figure that the elderly won't be around much longer, so why not give one to them? We've got more placards out there than are legitimately needed."

State Division of Motor Vehicles records indicate that the agency issues an average of 31 handicapped placards every day, and that's the real issue that needs to be addressed, according to Julie Reiskin, executive director of Colorado Cross Disability Coalition. But Reiskin doesn't believe the new ordinance will solve the problem. "We don't support this idea," says Reiskin, "because the issue here isn't the policy, it's the abuse. Grandma dies, and a family member gets the placard and uses it forever.

Foster says Bill Berens, a US West employee who's also the mayor of Broomfield, came up with the idea for the ordinance change. The proposal would still allow people with handicapped placards to park for free, but only for two hours. Berens says he's frustrated not only by the meter-hogging, but also by the fact that he believes most of the people parking for free outside his building don't need the privilege.

"But how do you walk up to a person and ask them if they're really handicapped when they get out of their car and run up the stairs into the building?" asks Berens. "It's just one of those things where you're walking down the street and you scratch your head when you see it happen. But at the same time, you don't want to get confrontational, because maybe the person has a heart problem or something."

Nelson, who uses a motorized chair himself, knows the scenario. "Citizens get upset when they see someone who they think is abusing the placards," he says. "We had one guy call us after he saw a lady park her Dodge Viper, hang up her handicap placard, then run up the street in high heels. It turned out that it was her boyfriend's grandmother's tag."

This is common, says Nelson, who is also the city's Americans With Disabilities Act compliance officer. "It's crazy to see how far people will go to get free parking," he says. "As a result, the intent of the law has gotten way out of hand. And we see a lot of instances where people will apply for a placard under the name of an older relative who's dead." Nelson and others say they don't know how many people may be unjustly using the tags and placards.

"I can see the point [of the proposed ordinance change]," says Reiskin, "but for the few people who really need to be able to park at these meters, this won't solve the problem. What people don't realize is that it's really exhausting to get in and out of a car if you have to use a wheelchair, especially if you can't afford a wheelchair-accessible van. We've got one person on our staff who needs fifteen minutes just to get her wheelchair set up after parking. So if that person has to move their car after two hours, that doesn't give them enough time to take care of their business. While this ordinance might cut down on people monopolizing spaces all day long, it's going to be a real hassle for a lot of people."

Reiskin suggests that it would be better to allow people with handicapped placards to feed the meters and park for as long as they need. Having to pay for metered spots, she says, would drive those with placards who don't need the curbside spaces to park in lots.

Despite Reiskin's complaints, Foster says that she doesn't expect much formal opposition to her proposal, especially since by her calculations, it will rake in "at least $250,000" annually in additional revenue for the city. She hopes city officials will approve the plan before the end of this month.

"We might piss off some people with this plan," says Frank Nelson, "but the bottom line is that even people with legitimate disabilities are abusing this policy as it is now.


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