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Parking Break 

Want parking fines to go away without paying? Sign up with S.F.'s "best-kept secret."

Wednesday, Dec 10 2003
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It's 10:42 a.m. on a Tuesday, and a street sweeper has just taken its best shot at removing grime and God knows what else from an uninterrupted stretch of San Francisco curb. The empty space beckons you to pull your car in. A sign says no parking for street cleaning until 11, but surely ticketing you now wouldn't be in the spirit of the law, right?

Wrong. Thirty-five bucks wrong.

The San Francisco parking landscape, featuring about 320,000 legal street spaces for around 500,000 registered vehicles, is chaotic. And it isn't changing anytime soon. So, despite your most exhaustive law-abiding efforts – such as completing a 23-point turn to wedge into a "space" in the Mission after 45 minutes of circling – odds are that you'll eventually find a white slip under your wiper blade. In 2002, San Francisco issued about 2.4 million parking tickets, generating $67 million for the city coffers. And a recent city budget proposal bumps projected ticket revenues for 2004 up to $86 million.

Of course, our society's gasoline addiction is so massively subsidized, and the environmental side effects so serious, that a de facto car tax is probably good (even if it's a flat tax that doesn't distinguish between a Hummer and a Prius).

But even if you feel this way, you may not feel good about throwing dollars at a bureaucracy that uses a five-color curb coding system vaguely reminiscent of the Terrorist Threat Advisory program and gives "faith-based" parking privileges in the Valencia Street median on Sundays.

Luckily, there is an alternative to paying off your parking tickets – and it doesn't involve moving to Canada. Welcome to Project 20, a privately run program that allows victims of the parking/budget crunch to work off up to 10 citations per year – at the rate of $6 an hour – by volunteering at a local nonprofit organization. Through Project 20, you can cut out the government middleman and make sure your parking taxes do as much for the common good as you want, as long as you have some time (as all too many former dot-commers still do).

Maybe you want to volunteer for the Coalition on Homelessness instead of sending your cash anywhere near Gavin Newsom. Or you can simply be vindictive about it: There must be something exhilarating about collecting tickets at a drag performance instead of paying yours.

"It's my magic San Francisco fairy tale – I can make parking tickets go away," says Kevin Schaub, executive director of the Harvey Milk Institute, an S.F. nonprofit whose mission is to "strengthen queer culture" and which signs up Project 20 volunteers for tasks like ushering at queer comedy shows and other events. In return for his part in the DPT disappearing act, Schaub gets a much-appreciated influx of 50 to 100 new volunteers each year. "We love Project 20," he says. "We don't even really know who they are. But God bless them."

Indeed, the program is somewhat clandestine, as its cryptic name suggests. Most people, like Heather Russ, a Harvey Milk Institute volunteer in the midst of a Project 20 contract ("It can be hard to remember to move your car every two hours," she says), hear about the program through word-of-mouth. Russ has passed the word along to several friends. "The people I tell about Project 20 don't know about it at all," she says.

Project 20 administrator Stephan Snell concurs. "It's one of San Francisco's best-kept secrets," says Snell, who first heard about the program several years ago – just after he had paid $750 in parking fines. ("I almost cried," he says.) According to Snell, about 10,000 people from all walks of life take advantage of Project 20 each year. "We get people who have no choice – their money is going to go to Safeway to feed their family, not to DPT. We also get people with six-figure incomes who come in just based on principle." The DPT, he says, is obligated to refer anyone to Project 20 who asks – but you probably will have to ask. Parking citations certainly don't offer any information about Project 20, although the program is mentioned on the DPT Web site.

Snell describes Project 20's relationship with the DPT as a fragile balancing act. "The Mayor's Office would support us 100 percent," he says, "but the mayor is also like the CEO of DPT," which, Snell says, is "probably the No. 1 cash cow in the city." Publicizing a private agency that cuts into the DPT's revenue stream also can be a delicate matter. "We're not going to put up huge banners and posters," says Snell.

Project 20's low profile may be partly a result of its home in the San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project, which also handles alternative punishments for misdemeanors. Associating with criminals may make you feel even guiltier for failing to curb your wheels, but swallow your pride – things could be worse.

"People who come here leave pretty happy when they find out that community service isn't sweeping streets in an orange vest at 7 a.m. on a Saturday," says Snell.

Project 20 came into being as part of the efforts of Department 20 of the San Francisco Superior Court to divert petty offenders from overcrowded courtrooms. Court time hasn't been an issue since parking tickets were decriminalized in 1993, but be prepared to spend some time in line if you choose to sign up for Project 20, which, despite its nongovernmental status, is not without its bureaucratic hoops.

You must first go to the DPT offices to sign a contract that translates unpaid fines into service hours. Next comes a visit to Project 20's office to meet with a caseworker, who will hook you up with one of the nearly 3,000 qualified nonprofits in the Project 20 database. Project 20 charges an administrative fee of $20 to $150, depending on the number of service hours required. This fee is critical to the Pretrial Diversion Project, which runs several community service programs and receives very limited governmental funding.

Project 20's volunteers aren't always perfect matches for the many nonprofits in the database, especially since most contracts require only 20 to 40 hours of work. The San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, for example, has cut back its involvement in the program because its small staff can't afford to train and supervise such short-term help. Other organizations, such as the SPCA, have successful volunteer programs in place, but require extensive training and long-term commitment. And volunteer motivation can also be an issue: Understandably, some organizations prefer to rely on people who show up to help without needing a kick in the pants from the courts.

But plenty of groups happily accept volunteers of almost any level and skill set. "Project 20 is great because volunteers come in with a fixed number of hours," says San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Membership Director Michael Calfee (who welcomes automobile drivers without judgment). "We know exactly how long they'll be around, so we can fit them to an appropriate project." Calfee says there is a constant need for volunteers who can spend a few hours staffing bike valet stations or information tables at public events.

After the requisite number of hours is completed, a signed time sheet must be returned to the Project 20 office to close the deal with the DPT. But sometimes, another door stays open much longer: Both Calfee and Schaub say they have had Project 20 volunteers who have continued to work for their groups even after the fines were paid off.

"I think a lot of people are wanting to help out, and just need something to nudge them into action," Schaub says. "This can be that nudge."

About The Author

Sue Landsittel

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