JOLIET – Zack Fleming usually doesn’t use handicapped parking spots, but on some cold, snowy days he’s thankful for them.
Handicapped by a stroke, Fleming said it is a painful challenge to walk in inclement weather when his feet just don’t work as they should.
“It’s almost like you’re going to cut your ankles, because you’re trying so hard to do what your body used to do,” said Fleming, a Joliet resident.
On those days, Fleming puts the required placard on his mirror and uses the handicapped parking spot – if he can find one. And, it’s not always easy, he said, especially on weekends, when store parking lots begin to fill up.
“I usually don’t even bother going out in the afternoon unless there’s something that I have to do,” he said. “I won’t even try to go to the store.”
The city of Joliet in October 2014 doubled the fine for parking illegally in handicapped parking spots to $500.
The $500 fine might be as high as any in the nation, although it’s not clear whether higher fines help or hurt the cause.
But many, if not most, handicapped parking spots in Joliet still are marked with the $250 signs. And, only in recent months did Joliet begin a push to put out more of the new signs. The violator only has to pay the fine posted at the spot.
Posting $500 fines
John Sheridan, a disability advocate, has been urging city officials to get out the new signs. After Sheridan brought up the matter at a City Council meeting in early February, the city manager set a timetable to have the entire city posted by the end of summer – if Joliet hires a seasonal worker to help.
In the meantime, Sheridan has been taking photos of old $250 signs and sending them to Joliet’s online app for service requests, where he has seen some response.
Sheridan said he was at a Joliet restaurant recently that had eight handicapped parking spots.
“They had the $250 signs,” he said. “I took a picture of it, and two or three days later they came out with eight $500 signs.”
The city is providing the signs, even installing them in private parking lots, to get the $500 fines posted without turning the effort into a crackdown on local business.
“It’s not exactly business-friendly to send someone a notice to say they have to change their sign. And what do you do then?” City Manager Jim Hock said. “Give them a ticket and say they have to buy a sign? We’re trying to stay business-friendly.”
Besides, Hock said, it takes resources just to check and check back to see whether signs are being changed, which is one reason the changeover has been slow.
Sheridan believes just the notice of a $500 fine will do some good, even without a strong enforcement program.
“I think if it’s posted at $500, people are going to say, ‘I don’t want to chance it. I don’t have that kind of cash,’ ” Sheridan said.
If he had his way, Sheridan said, the fine would be $750, which is the highest Illinois allows.
Some state legislatures have considered pushing the fine as high as $1,000, said Mack Marsh, project director for Accessible Parking and Mobility Solutions.
“We find that makes the problem worse,” Marsh said.
The Joliet fine of $500 is found elsewhere in the U.S., Marsh said. He has not seen any that are higher and does not think high fines help anyway.
“We’ve found judges are dismissing the fines because they think they are too high,” he said.
Prosecutors frequently do not push the cases, he said. Police end up not ticketing.
Accessible Parking and Mobility Solutions is a nonprofit with a program aimed at dealing with handicapped parking scofflaws through an online education program.
Violators instead of being fined $500 would be ordered to complete the course. The violator would pay a $25 fee for the course and another fee to cover the city’s administrative costs, which the organization has estimated would be $200 in Joliet.
The program includes volunteer spotters, who would report violators.
Even though the program is not in place here, Marsh said spotters already in the Joliet area have reported 3,219 violations in the last 12 months.
Accessible Parking and Mobility Solutions has offered its program to Joliet, but the city has not taken it.
Marsh said the program has reduced violations by 80 percent in communities that use it. But not many do. Marsh said Accessible Parking and Mobility Solution is used in 20 communities.
He acknowledges there is resistance.
“Quite frankly,” he said, “local governments don’t understand this problem. They think that law enforcement will take care of this issue. The problem is law enforcement, even if they have the commitment, don’t have the resources. They don’t have the time to patrol the parking lots.”