Several years ago I encountered a malfunctioning parking meter in Ames, Iowa. I forget the exact scenario, but basically I put a quarter in and it failed to register the additional time. I took note of the malfunctioning meter, moved my car to another spot, and contacted the Ames Police Department when I got a chance, to inquire about a refund. They initially told me that they couldn’t do it because they had no procedure in place for refunds. I kept asking for supervisors until I got to leave a message for the chief. When Chief Cychosz returned my call, I explained my story, and his words were “I tend to agree with you.” He had his secretary create a form for this purpose, and I was able to stop by the police station to get my refund. I imagine I am about the only person who uses the form, and I know on another later visit when I filled out my information I could see I was the only other entry on the list. But this isn’t the point. The point is having principles and accountability. If I pay for a service and don’t receive that service then you have an obligation to reimburse me. Even vending machine companies do this. Police departments often don’t, but Chief Cychosz seems to be an honest man who understands that this was the right thing to do.
Now fast forward to my interaction last month with the Columbus, Ohio police. I put a couple coins in the meter, and then one quarter was not registered. The meter was a fancy computerized one, so they certainly have the ability to balance the amount of money received against the amount of time given. The situation described above in Ames was much less high-tech so the department is forced to accept a person’s word regarding the malfunction. I reported the meter broken on the internet and inquired how to get my refund. I got no response. Then I called the department and got transferred around a bit. Ultimately I spoke to a man named Mike in the Parking Violations Division who said that they have no ability to give refunds and he indicated that everybody in Columbus would line up for them. I told him that other people can do whatever fraudulent activity they want but it has no bearing on the responsibility of an organization to reimburse people who do not get a promised product. I also told him that you can’t work anywhere and handle money and not have it counted at the end of the day and yet he expects me to believe that nobody double checks the amount of cash in each meter against the computer. I asked him who I needed to speak to about getting a refund policy put in place and the best he could do was refer me to the city’s 311 system. I have yet to hear back on that.
If a city gets to keep the spoils from malfunctions, what incentive is there to keep the meters properly repaired? At the end of the day, that’s the reason this policy is important. It isn’t my problem that it might be difficult to verify. An ethical department should have a procedure in place to pay out the rare person who reports such a loss. Further, a police department that thinks they are too important to respond to citizen inquiries might as well be disbanded.