Buffalo's downtown streets are lined with 1,500 hungry parking meters, each one demanding $1 an hour from beleaguered motorists in need of space.
But ever since the city doubled the rates for parking meters two years ago, their revenues have dwindled. Instead of the $1.3 million that budget officials expected when they raised the rates, the city collected only $951,000 last year, or about $25,000 less than the year before.
A spot-check by The Buffalo News of more than 160 meters in busy downtown sections late last week found possible clues -- and widespread illegal parking.
All but 15 of the metered spaces were occupied by cars during the check, but of the 145 meters where cars were parked, only 43 were earning money for the city.
Of the rest, 65 indicated that the time had expired, even though a car occupied the space. None of those cars was ticketed.
The News also noticed that 22 of the meters were jammed -- most because they were full of coins and needed emptying -- and that 15 appeared to be broken.
At most of the 65 meters indicating "expired," the cars were displaying handicapped parking cards. Under a long-standing city ordinance, such vehicles may be parked free of charge all day at meters.
"I would say it's fractured," City Treasurer Marilyn J. Smith said when asked to describe the city's parking-meter system. "It's difficult to stay on top of it with the newer meters."
Other City Hall officials point to several factors for the drop in revenues, including a yearlong delay in hiring four extra workers to collect from meters, and work disputes between the different departments that deal with parking meters.
For years, the city has had only one police officer assigned to collect from meters, meaning that they often jam from being full of coins.
"We've just heard they (four prospective meter collectors) have cleared Civil Service. . . . That's after a year of waiting," grumbled City Budget Director James M. Milroy, who makes no secret of his frustration about the meters.
Milroy and other city officials say the hiring of four additional collectors could help the city revive the revenue stream.
The parking problems are nothing new. A 1995 study commissioned by the city Parking Violations Bureau pointed to widespread illegal parking downtown, jammed meters and lack of coordination between city workers.
"We saw what appeared to be a cultural disrespect for parking-control measures and systems citywide," the study concluded.
"Enforcement is a problem," acknowledged Parking Enforcement Director Leonard G. Sciolino, who said his staff of 20 enforcement officers cannot cover the whole city adequately. Thus, he said, many downtown motorists are getting a pass on overdue and illegal parking.
Sciolino, whose office is also responsible for repairing broken meters, said about 80 percent of the jammed meters his office encounters have stopped working because they are stuffed full of quarters and need to be emptied.
But his workers, who are represented by the city's blue-collar union, insist that they are not supposed to empty the meters, only repair them.
Mrs. Smith said that the city's only meter collector, Police Officer Donald Drayne, refuses to fix jammed meters because it takes too long.
"The No. 1 problem is meters jammed with coins," Sciolino said. "I've offered her (Mrs. Smith) a radio so we can coordinate, but she won't do it. We have no communication between the people on the street."
According to Sciolino, another huge problem is the number of cars that display handicapped parking cards, which he said is becoming a nationwide issue. Of the 65 cars parking free at Buffalo meters last week, more than 45 of them displayed such cards, including one issued in Florida.
"Abuse is rampant in the city," Sciolino said. "We have physicians who are certifying people for permits when it's not necessary."
Sciolino said that his office tries to crack down on those who can be proved to be abusing the handicapped permits but that problems persist here and nationwide.
"We have to do something. . . . It bothers me," he said.
Milroy said some of the revenue shortfall from meters might be because of cuts in parking-ramp fees and other adjustments made to ease parking problems downtown. However, officials say, there is no question that there are problems with the city's parking-meter system.