COLUMBIA, 5/2/13 (Beat Byte) -- Downtown parking enforcement, business owners and their employees complain, has become such a game of cat and mouse that "parking paranoia" is worsening the struggle to keep customer dollars away from mall and Internet competitors.
But customer dollars are going into city coffers. Parking tickets in 2011 were up a whopping 45-50% over past years. 2012 statistics have not been released.
"Downtown merchants have to compete with retailers and restaurants elsewhere that offer free parking," Tribune reader Karen Pasley wrote. "For downtown merchants to thrive and for Columbia’s downtown to remain the vibrant place that it is, metered parking must be a fair, convenient option for visitors."
But fair it isn't, say employees of two restaurants and a service business in Columbia's "District." They describe sneaky ticket tactics that pit so-called "meter maids" -- parking enforcement officers -- against merchants and their customers. They've borrowed a page from Seinfeld's famous "soup Nazi" to describe the situation: the Parking Nazis.
"All right everyone -- check your meters," said one restaurant manager, as he spotted the meter enforcer making afternoon rounds that coincide suspiciously with the restaurant's busiest times. "We can set our watches by the Parking Nazi," he explained. "She'll head our way just as the lunch or dinner crowds start showing up."
Even well-intentioned customers who run in for meter change may get a nasty surprise during high ticket time, from roughly 11:30 to 1 pm and 5 - 6 pm.
Parking enforcement goes into overdrive between 5:30 and 6:00 pm, the last 30 minutes before parking meters shut down for the day. "The meter maids blanket our street right before six," a hostess at a different restaurant explained. "They know a lot of people aren't feeding the meters by then."
Downtown parking fees and fines have doubled and tripled in recent years, as City Hall has sought ways to pay for Garagezilla -- the 10-story parking garage at 5th and Walnut -- and her offspring, including a new garage on Short Street.
His concerns were echoed this week, with Columbia Photo's announcement it is leaving downtown after more than 60 years.
"Many of our current customers have always loved Columbia Photo, but parking in downtown Columbia has always been a problem," owner Stephen Weiss said in a statement.
Tongue-in-cheek conspiracy theories abound about who the enforcers target. Timing tickets just before 6 pm is an obvious ploy, but which businesses to target may involve more exotic strategies.
Employees at a long-time downtown service business call it "sport" to watch the parking enforcers head out to troll for tickets. "The meter maids watch the street from that window," one employee explained, pointing toward the city courthouse. "We think they're spying on us, watching to see who leaves their cars in front of our building too long."
"They hover around law and professional offices, where people are more likely to get so involved in what they're doing, they forget to feed the carnivorous plants outside the window," said a merchant near law offices and an college preparation education center.
Downtown surveillance cameras might even play a role.
"I think they use a complex algorithm attached to the cameras," smirked an employee programming a copier as a parking enforcement officer passed his window.
Downtown merchants could be given special parking passes or assigned spaces in front of their buildings, with towing enforcement left up to them.
"Assigned parking would do more to help us than all the Internet taxes in the world," a downtown business owner told me last year, referencing the argument that Internet taxes will 'level the retail playing field.'" "But the city doesn't want to give up the income."
City Hall gripes that students and other so-called "free riders" would take up all the parking if it were free. But parking is free at the home of Ole Miss, downtown Oxford, Mississippi. Over 21,000 students there don't take up every space.
The truth: Overspending on giant garages has caused a parking budget squeeze, and the reign of the "Ticket Nazis" is likely to get worse before it gets better.
So much for "business friendly" Columbia.