August 5, 2014 at 11:57 am

Neal Rubin

Cutting corners on parking meter maintenance costs Detroit a pretty penny

Half of the city's 3,404 parking meters are typically out of order, often because of weak batteries. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

Here’s how a broke city got broker: too many cheap batteries and too few new locks.

The 9-volt batteries power Detroit’s parking meters.

The locks protect the batteries and the rest of the innards of the meters.

Nobody’s a villain here, as far as I know. You couldn’t send your kid to Amherst on the kickbacks from a few cases of batteries. You could barely even send your kid to Arby’s.

But I came across a guy the other day who was servicing meters, and as he explained what he was doing, it struck me that the law of unintended consequences was in play as much as the law of $45 parking tickets.

The tickets for parking at an expired meter were recently boosted by 50 percent from the long-standing $30 — a sensible move, since the cost of issuing and processing a $30 ticket had reached $32.

It stands to reason that if more meters were working, enforcement officers could have written more tickets in shorter periods and turned misery and aggravation into a profit center.

When the city’s bankrupt, every little annoying bit helps. And since 70 percent of all parking tickets get slapped beneath the windshield wipers of nonresidents, tickets could almost be a cottage industry.

That, however, requires functioning meters — which takes us back to batteries, locks, and a guy with a city van and a few simple tools.

A $6 million return

Bill Nowling, the spokesman for Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, conceded a few months ago that about half of Detroit’s 3,404 parking meters aren’t working properly on any given day.

Get them up and running, said Chief Operating Officer Gary Brown, and the city will collect an extra $6 million per year.

Eventually, maybe it’ll spend some of that on Duracells.

Before the city’s finances cratered, that’s what repairmen used. They’d change them twice a year, winter and summer, and they would hold up.

The discount batteries in his van, my new friend said, don’t last as long.

They’re cheaper, which sounds like a good thing when you’re tapped out. Just for comparison’s sake, one of them costs $1.15 at A Duracell CopperTop goes for $3.99.

But it turns out parking meters are finicky. The onset of cold weather will quickly draw their batteries down to about 8.7 volts, the repair guru said.

At 8.2 volts, they might take your money but not give you time, something that makes him feel guilty.

At 8 volts, they stop working. So while the savings with the less-expensive battery might sparkle on a spreadsheet, it’s less practical when repair crews have to actually go out and replace them ...

Especially when the darned meters won’t open.

It's more than batteries

That was another purchase put on hold by civic poverty: the cylinders that the keys fit into.

Just to be clear, we’re talking about the keys to the top half of the meter, not the section with the money. That’s a different department.

The old cylinders are made of some undefinable metal, and any combination of dirt, water and rust can fuse them shut. Also, they tend to chew up the long, slender universal keys, rendering them unusable.

Now, finally, durable brass cylinders are in hand. Bang out a broken metal one with a flat-nosed awl and a hammer, give the awl a twist with a crescent wrench, pop the side of the meter in just the right spot with the hammer, and the dome on top practically flings itself into your hand, exposing the machinery.

After that, switching batteries takes only seconds. Secure the meter with a recycled brass sleeve and one of the new cylinders, lock it with a shorter, wider, sturdier key, and the next battery change will be so simple the Energizer bunny could do it.

The repairman would still rather have Duracells, but nobody said bankruptcy would be easy.

You take progress where you can find it, $45 at a time.
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