Stone: As the meter said, ‘Feed me, Krelborn’ | AspenTimes.com

Stone: As the meter said, ‘Feed me, Krelborn’

Andy Stone
Stone’s Throw

In honor of Aspen Filmfest — which started small with good intentions, and grew into one of the town's great triumphs — I am going to begin this week's column with a film reference that harkens to another local institution, which started big with good intentions, grew like a cancer and then devolved into a disgraceful mess.

Wait! Hold it right there!

Want to guess which film and which disgraceful mess? Hard to choose, I know: So many movies, so many messes.

Write down your answers. Win valuable prizes! Anyone can play! But be honest. No peeking.

OK, pencils down.

The movie reference: "Cool Hand Luke," opening scene. Paul Newman, cheerfully drunk, is "settling old scores" (as he puts it) by cutting the heads off parking meters.

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And — zap! — that immediately leads us to paid parking, our disgraceful mess du jour. (I promise I'll get to some of the others as soon as possible. Can't let disgraceful messes pile up — it's not as if I'm a government official.)

Let's start with a basic fact: Paid parking is despicable. Everybody hates paid parking, even people who love paid parking.

After all, the streets are public property. And we, the public, paid to pave and maintain those streets through our taxes.

So we own the property, we paid to pave it, and now we have to pay to park on the pavement we paid for. (Sure, that's a tongue-twister, but, worse than that, it's a reality-twister to a twisted reality.)

In Aspen, paid parking was proposed for purely praiseworthy purposes. (Yeah, I'm stuck on that tongue-twisting nonsense.) The idea was to reduce local traffic by making it annoyingly expensive to drive into town.

But even if we accept this as a good idea, government's good ideas have a way of getting swamped in an ever-increasing welter of bureaucracy. And whatever the original justification, Aspen's Parking Department has become a behemoth, with loads of staff and vehicles and all sorts of electronic gadgets to keep track of residents and wring out the last possible penny. It's a ravenous beast that must be fed year-round. (Another film reference: "Little Shop of Horrors." Audrey II croaking, "Feed me, Krelborn. Must be blood. Must be fresh. Must be — human!")

As a result of that endless appetite, the parking fees designed to reduce traffic remain in effect year-round, even during the offseason — when traffic is already low. That is greedy and cynical, and the government doesn't even have the common decency to blush, much less to apologize or explain. (Except by saying it needs the money — to pay the people who collect the money.)

So, as noted, paid parking is generally despicable.

Now we get to the immediate disgraceful mess: Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been lost because some clever locals exploited a flaw in the city's semi-high-tech parking meters — a flaw that the city knew about for a long time but did nothing to correct because it apparently wasn't worth the trouble.

And the city's immediate response when the mounting losses came to light was to declare that, by gum, they're going to track down these felonious parkers and throw the book at them.

OK. Let's set aside the fact that the city has mighty slim chances of tracking down these nefarious characters. And let's even skip over the fact that the city should be focusing its efforts on figuring out why its own staff was so blind when it came to keeping track of its precious parking system and our precious money.

Let's look instead at the morality of the matter.

City Councilman Dwayne Romero had a letter to the editor published in this newspaper, with ominous references to felony convictions and pursuing the evildoers with "vigor." ("Councilman: Thievery cannot be condoned," Letters, Sept. 19.)

That's a pretty pompous pedestal, pal. (Oops, there I go again.)

And those high-horse ethical sentiments ring especially hollow when you consider that the city's parking meters have long been set up to cheerfully accept money during periods when parking is supposed to be free. Charging for something that is supposed to be free is — to use a technical term — stealing.

Think about that: City officials are delivering scolding lectures on the immorality of people "stealing" parking, while at the same time they have set up their parking meters to steal actual money from people who park.

The city's position was, "If you're stupid enough to pay us money when you don't need to, we'll take it." The meter-scammers' was, "If you're stupid enough to allow us to park for free, we'll take it."

You might think those attitudes sound roughly equivalent, but think again. For the city, if a glitch in the system — which it could fix but won't — allows it to collect money it has no legal right to, tough! But if a glitch in the system allows people to park for free when they have no legal right to, felony!

Romero ended his letter suggesting that "all of this may pave the way in rebuilding trust for and among ourselves."

As Socrates said, "Yeah. Right."

The history of paid parking in Aspen is littered with broken promises, misrepresentations and outright lies — and that statement is coming from someone who was in favor of paid parking when it was first instituted.

If the City Council wants to "rebuild trust," it should drop this nonsense about tracking down the vehicular miscreants (the axles of evil?) and focus on cleaning out the too-comfortable incompetents in its own sacred halls (the axis of weevils?).

Then it should show some common decency and honesty by aggressively reprogramming the meters to refuse any payments during free-parking periods — nights, weekends, offseasons. Then it should expand those periods so that the only time people are required to pay for parking is when there is a real need to reduce traffic: high season, period.

I have said (several times, I know) that paid parking is despicable. To balance out that essential fact, the city must honor a basic contract of decency with its residents.

And really, that's not very much to ask, is it?

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is andy@aspentimes.com.