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Parking pains: Long overdue fines spark calls to change parking in downtown Bloomington

Parking ticket lodged in car window
Emily Bollinger
The City of Bloomington unsuccessfully sought to implement an amnesty program to recoup tickets and fines linked to more than 10,000 unpaid parking tickets.

There's free parking in front of the Bryant Miller hair salon on the north end of downtown Bloomington for 90 minutes.

Stylist Jill Lockwood said clients have to spend a minimum of two hours in the chair if they want highlights or other services. Those customers can either move their vehicle mid-appointment, or find four-hour parking — on the other side of a four-lane highway or several blocks away at the Market Street parking garage.

Lockwood said she doesn't recommend the garage to customers. She said it's a long walk, especially for older people, adding dark wintertime and potentially icy sidewalks make walking to the parking deck even more problematic. Lockwood said it doesn't feel safe. Many customers end up with parking tickets. Lockwood said she pays the tickets for them, but has racked up thousands of dollars in parking tickets and fines herself.

Lockwood said she's avoided parking garages since she was young girl and carries mace with her, along with the towels and hair care products she lugs to and from her car every day. Lockwood said the daily walks to the salon are filled with anxiety.

Parking garage
Cindy Le
Bloomington Police report close to 200 calls for service at the Market Street and Lincoln garages during 2019 and Sept. 2021-Aug. 2022. The largest share of calls were for encounters with people who are intoxicated or homeless.

“There isn’t a time that I am walking to my vehicle that I am not thinking about the worst possible thing that could happen to me in that moment,” Lockwood said. “That’s draining.”

Lockwood owes the City of Bloomington more than $3,100 in overdue parking tickets and unpaid fines. She is not alone. The city has more than 10,000 thousand unpaid tickets. Many of them are at least two years old.

Parking violators have racked up nearly $300,000 in unpaid fines in Bloomington; a majority stem from chronic offenders.

As Bloomington plans a multi-million dollar redesign of downtown to make it more inviting for shoppers, workers and diners, some who work there say they don't feel safe parking their vehicles in certain places.

No amnesty

Recently, the city proposed an amnesty program to collect some of those unpaid bills, cutting the amount in half if paid within a month. A portion of the money would go to a school charity.

Several residents told the Bloomington City Council during a July meeting amnesty is a bad idea.

“This is something for a financially sound city service? No, because you are giving away money,” Surena Fish said during public comment.

“If you choose to forgive parking tickets, what’s next? What else are we going to forgive?” Deborah Johnson asked.

The bulk of those unpaid fines come from a group of 50 people. They each owe between $1,000 and $16,000, according to city documents WGLT obtained through a public records request.

City council member Grant Walch said reducing those fines would reward bad behavior.

“These are people who just constantly don’t care that we have parking rules and regulations that they have to follow and that they should be following,” Walch said.

The city council scrapped the amnesty idea and turned the fines over to a state collections program.

Safety concerns

In a WGLT interview, City Manager Tim Gleason questioned whether safety concerns are a convenient screen for what's really going on with scofflaws.

City of Bloomington
Tim Gleason

“I think if I was one of those frequent fliers — I think is what people are calling it — I would come up with what sounds like a reasonable excuse as well,” Gleason said. On the safety issue, Gleason said if you do run into trouble, call police.

“Those are rare and always a 911 call away if anyone would feel like they are being threatened, or had those concerns that rise to that level and police will be there immediately,” he said.

Chewy Charleston said that wasn't his experience. He tends bar at the Brass Pig restaurant downtown. He said three people mugged him as he was about to enter his downtown apartment building on St. Patrick's Day last year. He said the robbers took his phone and wallet.

“I was able to defend myself and get a chain and a watch off of one of them and I asked the police can you please keep an eye in front of my place? They were like, sure we can do that for you after they took about 20 minutes to get there,” Charleston said.

Police later captured two of the culprits, he said, recalling another time he saw someone walking downtown wearing a shirt that looked like one he had in his car to donate to charity. Sure enough, someone had smashed his car window and was sleeping in his vehicle in the Market Street garage.

Charleston said he no longer lives downtown and he never advises anyone to use that garage. He said it's poorly lit with no sense of security. During the day, he said all you see is dirt and loitering.

Police data

WGLT looked at data on police calls involving the Market Street and Lincoln parking garages from 2019 — just before the pandemic — and September 2021 to August 2022. Bloomington Police responded to fewer than 200 calls for service to those garages during those two periods. Officers did another 1,000-plus unprompted extra visits to the parking decks in that time. Bloomington police spokesperson Brandt Parsley said those are typically preventive patrols.

The data show 19 disorderly conduct calls, five for criminal damage, one armed subject in the Lincoln garage, one shots fired incident at the Market Street deck and one burglary, also at Market Street. The most common call was for what police classify as a pedestrian contact. Parsley said that's typically an encounter with someone who may be homeless or intoxicated.

Parsley said people should always be aware, but the data show the garages are generally safe.

“You can look at the statistics and see we are not having a lot of violent crime there, so the odds of being a victim of a violent crime is small based on the statistics. But what I would tell everybody is that anytime you are going anywhere, you do your due diligence,” Parsley said.

The city has security cameras in its downtown parking garages. They only cover the entry and exit lanes and the pay stations. Parsley said the bulk of the downtown calls Bloomington Police answer come during peak party periods, not when retail stores are open.

“Probably 80% to 85% of those extra patrols are occurring on a Thursday night, Friday night or Saturday night during the bar hours,” Parsley said. “Obviously we have such a large population of people in a concentrated area at those times.”

The bar scene spikes on weekends when the city doesn’t enforce parking limits.

Hannah Smith lives downtown, several blocks from the hair salon where she works. Smith wonders why the city can’t expand free parking to help retailers who keep daytime hours.

“They do have free parking Friday, Saturday, Sunday after 5 p.m. and it seems like they are encouraging the drinking and the nightlife more than they are the downtown businesses that are supporting here,” Smith said. “That gets frustrating.”

The traditional answer to Smith's question is without parking enforcement, a downtown workforce prefers to camp out in the most convenient parking places and block retail customers.

Charleston said he walks co-workers to their vehicles. He watches their tables while they move cars to avoid tickets. He said it's unfair to customers who have to wait while servers run that errand every 90 minutes — and that often leads to lower tips.

Downtowners have a term for the never-ending cycle of ticket dodging.

“Business owners downtown do the car shuffle,” explained Inchol Chong, manager at Reality Bites restaurant downtown. “Every hour and a half they are moving their cars so they don’t get tickets.”

Chong said parking is a serious concern for his staff. He said most are younger. Most are female. They often have to walk several blocks to the car after a shift. He said it's great more people want to live downtown, but parking enforcement discourages it.

“It costs the city money obviously to maintain the vehicles, to pay their employees and I would love to see how much money they are actually gaining in revenue versus what they are putting out for that force,” Chong said.

Losing proposition

Parking enforcement vehicle
Eric Stock
The city of Bloomington employs three full-time parking enforcers who patrol downtown for violators.

Bloomington does not make money on parking enforcement. The city spends nearly $1 million on parking maintenance each year.

The city recovers about 20% percent of that through parking revenue, including fines. Nearly a third of that $1 million goes to salary and benefits for three parking enforcers and one attendant at the Lincoln garage.

The city sells $50 monthly parking passes to Market and Lincoln streets garages and to its arena decks. A recent count showed nearly 630 parking pass holders.

Chong said no one seems to benefit from the current system. “That parking patrol, I understand they have a job to do. I get that. I just don’t understand how there can’t be a better solution to the problem,” Chong said.

Other options

Downtown stakeholders have explored other ideas over the years, but the ideas went anywhere. Jamie Mathy has owned several downtown businesses and until recently served on the Bloomington City Council. He said many midsized communities, including Champaign, Peoria, Decatur and Springfield, all have metered parking. He's pushed the idea of business owners offsetting customer parking expense with voucher validations.

“The coupons were 50% off for the regular price of parking,” Mathy said. “I’ve been advocating for that for years, but that doesn’t seem to be a conversation that other people want to have.”

The city once had parking meters downtown. It took them out when mall shopping began to dominate retail. With malls in decline and online shopping ascendant, it's no longer clear whether metering would hurt retail, though customers certainly say it would.

The city did a downtown parking survey in February 2020. Three-fourths of customers surveyed said they don't want metered parking. Two-thirds said metered parking would keep them from coming downtown.

A poll of business and property owners done at the same time showed similar results. Less than one-third support metered parking.

Mathy said there are no perfect solutions, but while the issues go unresolved, it gets more complicated because a lot more people live downtown than a decade ago, and the mindset apparently hasn't changed.

“There is a sense of entitlement that can come sometimes with this idea that it’s always been free, but is it sustainable long term?” Mathy asked. “That’s a different question.”

Reimagined downtown

Bloomington's parking enforcement could change. Gleason said that's a part of the downtown streetscape overhaul that could happen over the next decade. He wants to look at mobile pay meters for downtown, wider sidewalks and more narrow streets.

“I think that we make it a more walkable downtown and that lends itself to the parking issues that we have and the idea that I’ve got to be parked right in front of that place that I want to do business with,” Gleason said.

As for parking enforcement, Gleason said the city plans to more than just send overdue fines to collections. He said the council wants to look at booting vehilces owned by chronic offenders, or those left on the street too long.

Appealing tickets

Parking violators in Bloomington who feel their ticket is unfair can appeal it. Few have.

A public records request shows 10 people appealed tickets during a two-year-period ending in August. One came from the wife of a downtown business owner the city fined $250 for parking her car six inches inside a handicap space.

The city denied her appeal. Seven of the 10 tickets were dismissed.

Downtown salon employee Jill Lockwood said she refuses to pay her parking fines out of protest. She said she has offered suggestions to the city, but no one is listening.

“Because we’ve been trying. We’ve been trying to come up with solutions,” Lockwood said.

Lockwood said she'd support metered or validated parking or an allowance for longer parking times to customers with longer appointments. Without changes, she said her clients don't feel welcome downtown.

“Every time I see those signs on Veterans Parkway that say ‘Come to downtown,’ I want to rip them down and say they don’t want you, because they only want you for an hour-and-a-half,” Lockwood said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Lockwood said she's encouraged by the number of businesses that have popped up near her salon in recent years and said Bloomington Police are good about checking up on them. As for customers using the parking garages, she said we're just not there yet.

Normal parking

The Town of Normal reported it had just over $12,000 in unpaid tickets and fines, much lower than Bloomington.

Tickets for overtime parking is $20. The town levies a one-time $10 late fee if it’s not paid within a week.

Cathy Oloffson, the town's director of communications and community relations,, the town has authority to have the vehicle towed or immobilized, but generally hasn't done that.

“Typically the town does not send unpaid parking tickets to a collection agency but has the right to do so,” Oloffson said, adding the town would first hold an administrative hearing and send notice to the vehicle owner.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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