Raleigh, N.C. — City officials have vowed for years to tackle the problem of vehicles with handicapped placards taking metered and time-limited parking spaces at no charge all day long.
The vehicles limit the amount of turnover in parking spaces, especially downtown, that merchants crave. Most people contend that people with disabilities aren't the ones flouting the system, but relatives and people who obtained a handicapped placard while recovering from surgery or other temporary situation.
A WRAL News crew spotted the same Jeep with a handicapped tag parked for an extended period on a downtown street in 2006, last year and again this month.
Last year, one woman admitted to using her father's placard, and another woman who had recovered enough from a car accident to walk in high heels said she planned to use her handicapped tag as needed until it expired.
"It's such a controversial issue, (city officials) don't want to face it," said Floye Dombalis, owner of Mecca Restaurant on East Martin Street downtown. "Sooner or later, you have to face up. You have to get something done."
City task forces in 2006 and 2008 talked about cracking down on the misuse of handicapped placards, and Police Chief Harry Dolan last summer promised a citizen patrol would begin spotting abuse by last October. So far, nothing has happened.
On Thursday, city officials said they would lobby state lawmakers for a change in the law outlining the use of handicapped tags.
"We're slow to change, in part, because it's sensitive – there's no question about that – but also because it involves state law, and it's always a challenge to make a change there," Mayor Charles Meeker said.
Meeker and City Attorney Thomas McCormick said state law needs to change take away free, all-day parking for placard holders.
Yet, Charlotte already makes everyone pay for parking, regardless of whether they have a handicapped tag, and parking administrators there said they don't have the low turnover of spaces seen in Raleigh.
Disability advocate Mark Ezzell, who served on the most recent parking task force, which produced a master plan for downtown parking without addressing the handicapped parking issue, said balancing fairness, enforcement and accessibility is tough.
"I think we recognize there's only so much the city can do," Ezzell said, adding, "the city hasn't been as quick as we'd like."
Dombalis said general parking enforcement downtown has improved lately, but the suspect use of handicapped tags remains as prevalent as ever.
"If everybody could spend one week sitting (downtown) and seeing everything I do, they'd change their mind about a lot of things," she said.
Meeker said he's frustrated to see designated handicapped spaces in downtown parking garages sit empty.
"People are able to park on the street free, and that's the wrong incentive," he said.