Emanuel, White back proposed meter-cheating crackdown

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Parked cars with handicapped parking placards on Congress between Clinton and Canal Streets. | Sun-Times Media

Legislation that would end free parking in metered zones for most Illinoisans who have disabled-parking placards and license plates is getting support from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Jesse White – both of whom initially didn’t back the proposal.

Even some disability-rights advocates are warming to the idea, which might drastically reduce the deep financial cost that disabled-parking cheating is placing on Chicago taxpayers.

The legislation – filed by state Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park) in response to a Chicago Sun-Times “Watchdogs” investigation – would establish a two-tiered disabled-parking system throughout Illinois, where handicapped motorists have been allowed to park for free in metered zones for decades.

Starting in 2014, only wheelchair-bound people and others who are physically unable to feed meters would be allowed to park in metered spots without having to feed meters or parking payboxes, according to the legislation. They’d be sent a new set of placards that would display their right to free metered parking in Chicago and other Illinois communities after the secretary of state’s office reviewed paperwork signed by their doctors.

Regular disabled-parking placard and plate holders would continue to be allowed to park in handicapped-only spots in parking lots and garages but would not have free-parking benefits in metered zones.

May is basing her legislation off a two-tiered law in Michigan, where there are 495,085 disabled-parking license plates and placards in circulation. Only 10,316 of those disabled-parking tags – about 2 percent – entitle people to free metered parking, though.

In Illinois, White’s office oversees the distribution of about 600,000 disabled-parking placards and another 82,000 handicap license plates statewide.

Until recently, Emanuel and White have said that higher disabled-parking cheating fines and more enforcement by police are the best ways to stop able-bodied people from using relatives’ placards, deceased people’s placards, fake placards and even stolen placards to cheat Chicago’s meter system.

The Sun-Times spotlighted those problems in its investigation, published in November. A subsequent Sun-Times report revealed that the private company that operates Chicago’s meter system is demanding $13.5 million for free parking it provided to drivers who displayed disabled-parking placards and plates in the one-year period that ended Feb. 28, 2011.

Another disabled-parking reimbursement tab for the year ending this past Feb. 28 is expected soon.

Top aides to both Emanuel and White said they initially worried that May’s proposal would go too far in limiting disabled people’s rights. Both sides, however, are satisfied that minor pending revisions will satisfy those concerns.

May’s bill passed unanimously out of a House transportation safety committee Wednesday. Emanuel’s and White’s support vastly improves its chances of passing in Springfield.

“The city has been long concerned about the escalating abuse of disabled-parking placards,” said Karen Tamley, commissioner of Emanuel’s office for people with disabilities. “The proposed legislation strikes a balance between protecting the needs of people with disabilities who cannot physically access the meters and working to reduce fraud and abuse of the program.”

A top disability-rights advocate agrees.

“I wish there was a way not to have a two-tiered system,” said Marca Bristo, president and CEO of Access Living, “but we have come to understand that unless there was some way to narrow the eligibility, the system was really wide open and eligible for abuse.”

Escalating parking-meter fees have contributed to disabled-parking fraud in Chicago, where an hour of metered parking in the Loop costs $5.75 and will rise to $6.50 in 2013.

Chicago Parking Meters LLC didn’t gauge how many drivers who parked for free at its meters in Chicago were legitimately disabled. But its surveys have government officials convinced that disabled-parking cheating played a major role in the $13.5 million tab.

Emanuel’s office also is maintaining that there are problems with the way the parking-meter company calculated the tab. According to records obtained under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, City Hall hired the accounting firm Grant Thornton LLP to help it try to lower the tab, arguing that hundreds of pages of surveys were “illegible.”

Chicago Parking Meters is standing by its calculations, providing “clean copy survey sheets” to justify that cost, the records show. Still, Emanuel’s office is refusing to pay the bill.

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