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Not-so-Easy Park 

I had to painfully cram my fingers into the crack between the driver's seat and the console to get it, but it was there: a shiny silver quarter among the crumbs and old napkins.

It's the small victories that count. Since I never carry cash, let alone change, feeding parking meters has traditionally been, well, more of a challenge than you'd think. So I was beyond thrilled when the city unveiled its Easy Park card system in April 2006, allowing people to purchase a prepaid card to feed a meter instead of using coins.

Bonus: You can slide the card to get the full amount of time the meter allows, then reslide the card when you return to "check out," and only be charged for the time you actually parked in the spot. (All city parking meters take Easy Park. Meters in Penrose Library's parking lots, however, are owned by the library and do not accept Easy Park.)

I actually own two cards. You know, just in case.

However, neither one was much help a month ago when I pulled into a reasonably good parking space near City Hall, en route to a City Council meeting. Neither card registered.

I backed up the car and parked in a nearby spot. Same story.

Frustrated and late, I found myself in the opening scenario: using my squashed fingers like a set of chopsticks to nab a coin out of the darkest recesses of my hatchback. Ugh.

Then I had to go to an ATM, and a store to get change, and then back to the meter to feed in enough time.

I know I'm not the only one. There are 7,630 Easy Park cards out there, and users recharge an average of about $2,900 a month on those cards. For me, the card works about 90 percent of the time. Which means 10 percent of my parking life is filled with panic and despair.

City Parking Administrator Greg Warnke says the problem is within the 9-volt batteries installed in parking meters to count coins and communicate with an Easy Park database. The latter function takes more battery power. Hence, if the meter battery is low, it often still takes coins, but refuses the Easy Park card.

Unfortunately, many batteries have been low as of late, because this year the city altered its battery-changing procedures. All batteries were being changed three times a year, costing the city about $75,000 annually. But Warnke says that system was fiscally and environmentally irresponsible, since batteries can last nine or 10 months. Now, batteries are being replaced as they die.

"We want to get all the use out of them we can," he says.

The meters are checked regularly, but citizens can call a phone number listed on the meters to report a dead one. If a complaint is received on a weekday, the meter will be fixed within two days.

For the time being, however, not too many people are complaining. Warnke says he receives about five or six complaints a day — same as in previous years. Wendi Lichtenegger, Municipal Court operations supervisor, says she hasn't received any complaints from people who parked at meters that refused their card.

It could be that folks see failed meters as a blessing. Hey, free parking! Police Sgt. Lonnie Spanswick, who oversees parking enforcement, says the city doesn't ticket for parking at a failed meter.

"It'd just be kind of unethical for us to write you a ticket when the meter isn't even working," he says.

stanley@csindy.com

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