SYCAMORE, Ill. — Mike Stolarski didn’t need but a few minutes to grab a cup of coffee. But, being in a generous mood, he fed a parking meter enough for whoever pulled into his soon-to-be-empty parking spot.
So, instead of costing him a penny, it cost him two.
In a time of strained city budgets, this community of 18,000 residents an hour west of Chicago is one of a handful still holding onto meters that accept pennies, nickels and dimes around its town square. A penny gets you 12 minutes, a nickel buys an hour and a dime is worth two hours.
Don’t fret if bills or a credit card is all you have — sometimes people leave a few extra pennies stacked on the meters. And the guy whose job it is to write tickets when he spots expired meters? He’s been known to feed them.
The City Council quadrupled the fine for parking tickets a few years ago. “The fines went from a quarter to a dollar,” Mayor Ken Mundy said, adding out-of-towners often ask for a copy of the ticket as a keepsake.
While it seems like a scene straight out of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” there’s purpose in the parking strategy.
Mundy and others are well aware that meters translate into big money — and sometimes scandal — in places like Chicago, where parking costs as much as $6.50 an hour and a ticket is $65. But unlike many other communities, where downtowns are littered with boarded-up storefronts, theirs is thriving. And they think the penny parking meters’ message — that Sycamore is welcoming but not trying to gouge visitors — is one of the reasons why.
“The meters encourage people to come downtown,” City Manager Brian Gregory said, which to him is more valuable than the “few thousand dollars” in revenue Sycamore would realize if it raised parking rates. Right now, he said, the city basically breaks even.
So, why charge at all? Mundy and Gregory say the meters do exactly what the city and business owners want: Encourage motorists to park and shop without lingering too long so someone else can do the same.
“Even though it’s just a little money, it gives you a little more incentive to watch the time,” Stolarski said.
Merchants love the meters. “We use it as a marketing tool on Facebook,” Sycamore Antiques co-owner Ann Tucker said.
Shoppers do, too. “It keeps the quaintness of the town,” said Kathy Tornberg, who planned on using the whole two hours her dime bought recently. “Don’t tell them, but I’d be willing to pay a quarter for two hours.”
Photo Credit: In this May 21, 2008 photo, parking enforcement officer Giovanni Serra, right, watches as Sycamore Police Department intern Justin Keller writes a ticket in downtown Sycamore, Ill. Sycamore is one of the last communities in the country with parking meters that accept pennies. A few other towns have hung onto maybe a dozen or so meters as a reminder of a simpler time. But people who track parking in the United States say they’ve never heard of another town that has anywhere close to the 316 that are in Sycamore. (Daily Chronicle, Eric Sumberg/Associated Press)