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Rock Hill to get tougher on repeat parking offenders

Rock Hill officials say they plan to get tougher on drivers who don't pay their parking tickets.

The city plans to increase fines for repeat parking violators with unpaid tickets. Officials also plan to turn violators over to municipal court, where not paying could bring more severe consequences.

Rock Hill says it's missing out on parking fee revenues. Figures provided by the city show that in 2010, the city didn't collect between 38 and 64 percent of parking ticket fees.

In 2010, the city wrote about 1,400 downtown parking tickets. If tickets are paid within 30 days, the fee is $5. Otherwise, the fee is $10.

If everyone issued a ticket in 2010 had paid within 30 days, the city would have collected $7,000. If everyone had paid after 30 days, the city would have collected $14,000.

The city actually collected $5,075.

Rock Hill limits downtown parking to two hours along parts Black, East Main, Hampton and Caldwell streets. The restriction is enforced Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The spaces are designated with yellow stripes and signs.

All-day parking can be found at the white-striped spaces, including the Black Street parking deck at Dave Lyle Boulevard and East Black Street.

The goal is to create a constant cycle of customers for downtown businesses, said downtown development manager David Lawrence.

The city supports its downtown businesses, Lawrence added, but if business owners arrive early in the morning and remain parked in those prime spaces all day, it could discourage first-time visitors and regular customers.

"They're not going to want to come downtown if parking is an additional headache," he said. "We want parking as available as possible."

Stacey Giannatos, owner of Old Town Bistro, said she has noticed a lot of people parking downtown, especially when the restaurant rents out its Palmetto Room for special events. These events can attract between 200 and 300 people.

Giannatos said she - and customers she's talked too - have not expressed many issues with parking downtown.

The parking spaces do not have meters. Instead, parking enforcement officer Stanley Merritt patrols downtown four hours a day at random intervals.

He marks one tire on each car with chalk. Two hours or more later, he writes a ticket if he finds a car with the chalk mark.

"There are quite a few cars that are repeaters," he said. "I remember their tag number....It kind of stands out."

Merritt has been the city's parking enforcement officer for almost six years.

For four hours a day at random intervals, he walks a regular path throughout downtown: Black Street lot, Hampton Street lot, Hampton Street, Main Street, the lot at Caldwell and White streets and Caldwell Street.

He estimated he writes between 80 and 100 tickets a month.

Parking ticket fees help pay for maintenance, capital projects and the operation of downtown parking resources, including Merritt's salary.

But collecting fines has become a problem, Lawrence said. While the city can identify the people who don't pay fines, the consequences of not paying aren't severe. The fine remains at $10.

Plus, because the court system isn't involved, violators don't face legal consequences for not paying.

If Merritt notices a vehicle appears to be getting multiple tickets, city officials can go to a database, find a name to go with the vehicle and pursue collection efforts. These collection efforts involve sending a letter or invoice to the vehicle's owner.

But there is no legal enforcement or teeth behind the efforts.

That may change.

The city plans to adopt a fee plan that increases the charges for motorists with multiple violations. The escalating fee schedule has not been determined.

Rock Hill also has purchased a $2,300 handheld device that will allow Merritt to enter a car's license plate and immediately determine if the driver is a one-time, five-time or 20-time violator over two years.

Merritt can then print a ticket with the appropriate fine.

Later this year, driver's who don't pay parking tickets will find their cases in municipal court. The consequences there could involve docking a driver's state income tax refund, higher fines and a negative credit report.

Dates have not been set for creating the increased fee schedule or for turning over the cases to municipal court.

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