News of Albany’s corrupt parking enforcement system was hardly any big secret, its existence having been revealed in an embarrassing newspaper report last fall and confirmed by a recent Common Council investigation. But a state comptroller’s audit released last Friday has quantified it in such a way as to provide some clue as to its financial impact over the years, and to suggest it was significant would probably be an understatement.
Over an eight-year period beginning in 2001, more than 57,000 no-fine tickets were written to people who either worked for the police or some other city department, were politically connected, or had friends or family members in the P.D. Another 31,000 real tickets written during that period were dismissed, 53 percent without written explanation.
The audit declined to estimate a value for the lost revenue, but it’s safe to assume — given the $40 fine just for an expired meter — that it exceeded $3 million. In reality, the total may have been much higher, given that some of the sins for which enforcement personnel reportedly wrote “ghost” tickets were for more serious violations that bring stiffer fines.
Of course, it’s likely that the privileged bearers of “bull’s-eye” stickers — who knew they basically had carte blanche to park wherever and however they wanted — would have been more mindful of the parking rules had they feared getting a real ticket. So, as the comptroller’s report suggested, it was probably impossible to establish how much money was really lost as a result of the system.
However, one element that probably should be factored into the equation — and it hasn’t been discussed very much — is the cost involved with having meter attendants play along with the charade — going to the trouble of identifying illegally parked cars and writing the “ghost” tickets. Presumably the reason they were instructed to do so was to keep the system intact — to avoid creating any suspicion among bystanders that some violations were tolerable while others were not.
That the fraud committed on the public was so pervasive and went on for so long is truly remarkable. It’s also impossible to believe that there was no knowledge of it among top city officials, including those within the police department, the parking violations bureau and the mayor’s and city treasurer’s offices.
Now that the investigations and audits are finally over, it’s time for the mayor to make a promise — “never again” — and to establish an above-board system that confers special parking privileges only on the few city employees who really warrant having them.