For the first time in nearly 20 years, Rosemarie A. McKenna pulled up to City Hall at 7:40 a.m. Monday and found plenty of handicapped parking spots that were empty. In the past, the city's chief advocate for the disabled said, all spaces were usually claimed by 7:30.
McKenna considers this a sign that Buffalo's decision to abolish free parking for the handicapped will accomplish its intended task -- curbing abuse by able-bodied motorists.
"It used to amaze me. I would watch people with 4-inch heels getting out of cars," she said. "If I could wear 4-inch heels, I wouldn't need to use the spot."
But McKenna and other advocates for the disabled acknowledge that discontinuing the city's 25-year-old free-parking policy is already stirring controversy. Even before the change took effect Monday, many motorists with handicaps called to complain about the hardship of having to pay $1 an hour for parking.
Ronald A. Clark, chairman of the Mayor's Advocacy Committee for People With Handicapping Conditions, expects a flood of new complaints about the $15 parking fines. "They had to do this because of all the abuse, but the city didn't do nearly enough (public relations) to inform people," he said. "A lot of people will end up getting stuck with tickets who don't even know about the new law. . . . The city will have a lot of problems within the next six to eight months."
As of Monday, about 25 motorists had bought a computerized in-car meter, a device that gives individuals an alternative way to buy parking time. The only reason the city previously exempted the handicapped from paying at meters is because many are physically unable to feed coins into the slots or step up onto curbs. The high-tech gadgets solve that problem, according to city officials.
Handicapped motorists pay a one-time fee of $75 for the meters and the first parking card, and the fee includes $50 in parking time. A few dozen additional people have made appointments to obtain the in-car meters. Having bought 500 of the devices, the city expected a much larger demand.
Parking Enforcement Director Leonard G. Sciolino said sending letters to the 14,000 people who have handicapped tags would have cost too much money. About 65 cars were ticketed Monday for being parked in handicapped spots with appropriate permits but no money in the meters. Vehicles that park in handicapped spots without the appropriate tags are fined $85.