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City reaps windfall in parking fines

City parking enforcers slapped motorists with more tickets in the past year than at any time in at least five years, according to new figures released Friday.

By the time the fiscal year wraps up June 30, the 168,000 projected citations will be up more than 23 percent from the previous year. The increase is even more dramatic when compared with the two prior years.

The number of citations issued in the past 12 months was nearly 60 percent higher than ticket volumes in the 2008 and 2009 fiscal years.

"We're not being gestapos," Parking Commissioner Kevin J. Helfer insisted. "A lot of the tickets are complaint-driven. More people are calling 311, and when someone calls to complain, we have an obligation to respond."

But the tickets are bringing in a lot of money. Parking fines and late fees generated about $7 million as of April for the fiscal year, according to the city budget office. In the coming year, the city has projected that it will collect more than $9.2 million from fines and late penalties associated with parking tickets.

What's more, some new enforcement initiatives are being launched to deal with repeated problems. For example, people who are accustomed to parking illegally along Nottingham Terrace near Delaware Park -- sometimes on the grass -- as they attend sporting events in the park can expect to receive tickets.

Motorists will be given advance warnings, and city officials plan to meet with representatives from some athletic groups to discuss the issue. But after these steps are taken, enforcers will start ticketing violators in an area near Nottingham and Meadow. The problem is especially severe on Saturday mornings, city officials said.

Parking enforcers have also been more vigilant in the fast-expanding Buffalo Niagara Medical Corridor.

To those people who might accuse the city of being too stringent in enforcing parking laws, Helfer offered a rebuttal. He cited the parking problems caused by the Corporate Challenge that was held last week in Delaware Park, an event that attracted more than 12,000 runners. Helfer said enforcers could have written tickets for at least 2,000 illegally parked cars. Instead, only 40 citations were issued. The tickets were spurred by calls from residents who reported vehicles blocking fire hydrants, driveways or intersections.

"We're not out to hurt people. That's not our goal," Helfer said. "But it's a fine line."

City data shows that a growing number of people are calling the Citizens Services office to complain about illegal parking and other quality-of-life issues. The launch of the 311 non-emergency calling system has contributed to the increase, said First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey.

"People finally know the answer to 'what do I do if I see a problem,' " he said.

Meanwhile, Mayor Byron W. Brown announced Friday that he wants to see even faster responses to constituent complaints. He asked computer experts to map out a structured plan that would see dispatchers and other city staffers send immediate text messages to workers in the neighborhoods about problems.

In the previous fiscal year that ended last June, parking enforcers issued 136,102 tickets, compared with a projected 168,000 citations this year. In 2007 and 2008, the numbers hovered between 105,000 and 106,000 tickets. The figures only include tickets that were issued by enforcers in the Parking Department, Helfer said. City police officers also typically write several hundred tickets each week.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com