I can't believe that I'm writing about parking in Budapest because I'm sick and tired of the topic. When György Bolgár includes "parking" among his topics of the day, one can be sure that 90% of the callers will talk about it. And not just talk about it but talk about it at length. They never fail to include a detailed description of all the wrongs they suffered. After the complaints usually comes an interview with a lawyer who represents thousands of car owners who bitterly complain about fines. I must say that for a while I had no sympathy for those "wronged" because some of the stories simply didn't ring true. Or at least not to my ears. How is it possible that the complaining car owner claims that for two or three years he received no notice about the fine he had to pay but now suddenly he is confronted with a huge late fee? Moreover, the story usually continues, he doesn't even remember parking on such and such a street. Oh, give me another one, I said to myself. That's impossible! I know how inventive Hungarians can be when caught. Moreover, I still hear complaints: "and what about if someone is late and has a dentist's appointment…" Indeed, what about it? It sounded to me as if this explanation was supposed to be enough to deem the parking ticket illegitimate. I don't think I will ever forget the story of the Hungarian doctoral candidate studying in the United states who bitterly complained that the heartless American policeman was not moved by his explanation that his landlady's clock was slow!
Another reason for my lack of sympathy was that I'm accustomed to a well organized system of parking meters that are checked periodically by the "meter maids," employees of the police department. If they spot one with the red flag saying "expired" the car is ticketed. As I just found out, the city of New Haven has 2,600 parking meters and by now each is equipped with a slot for a smart card. Smart cards ranging in value from $20 to $300 can be purchased on the internet. Each meter shows the maximum time limit: some allow you stay there for twelve hours, others for as little as fifteen minutes. Depending on the location. Here is one of these meters. There are also more stringent rules and regulations that may involve towing one's car away. There are several streets which during rush hour are extremely busy and therefore between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. parking is not allowed. And the authorities are not joking. The towing companies that have a contract with the city arrive about fifteen minutes before the hour; at 4 o'clock on the dot they start towing! In five minutes all the cars are gone. The owner then has to phone the police department to find out where his car is. The tow company charges the owner $77 for towing and $20 a day after the first 24 hours for storage; I have no idea what the ticket itself costs. Moreover, if your car was towed for a serious violation or outstanding parking tickets, you must pay your tickets before you can claim your car. If you owe outstanding taxes, you must obtain a tax release to claim your car.
Well, in Budapest parking is a little more complicated. The fault lies, I think, on both sides. First, there is no central parking authority in the city. Each district, and there are twenty-three of them, handles parking independently and uniquely. It can easily happen that the rules that apply on the right hand of the street are not the same as those that apply on the left. Second, in Budapest they love using "wheel clamping" or, as it's called in the United States, "booting." In the U.S. cars are booted primarily to force payment of outstanding parking tickets. But not in Budapest. For an ordinary parking violation the authorities apply a wheel clamp. This practice is actually counterproductive as István Tarlós, Budapest head of the Fidesz delegation, rightly pointed out because the illegally parked vehicle stays even longer in the spot. Here is one from a Budapest street. This guy obviously overstayed his allotted time curbside. Once his car's wheel is clamped no one else can park in that spot for a while. By the way, one has to pay 14,400 forints before they release the car from bondage. This sum is over and above the fine the owner has to pay for his original sin. Some people claim that this practice might be unconstitutional.
Here I will concentrate on wheel clamping because the latest corruption case involves this practice. For reasons only the Budapest city fathers could explain, if at all, there is a central Fővárosi Közterület-felügyelet (Capital Public Domain Superintendent's Office). Normally this office does the clamping and the private parking companies the districts hired take the clamps off. Such an arrangement can easily lead to corruption. Especially if the district maintains its own public domain superintendent's office as was the case in District VI (Terézváros). If a district opts for that arrangement, the central superintendent's office has no jurisdiction over the office in the district. In District VI the private parking company, Centrum, was in cahoots with the superintendent's office. Depending on the number of clampings, Centrum kicked back to the head of the office approximately half a million forints a month. Thus, the more clamping the more money for Centrum and the more money under the table for the superintendent of public domains. I might add that the government in District VI is among the few where the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition is in charge. The District government and Centrum go back quite a way: one of Centrum's earlier CEOs was György Fürst, who also had a political career. For a number of years he was a member of the local MSZP delegation and between 2002 and 2006 he was one of the vice-mayors in the district. For the time being no one is picking up the telephone at Centrum. The superintendent of public domains was arrested in the middle of a transaction.
MDF has been very suspicious of Centrum for the last two years. In the summer of 2007 the party suggested setting up a parliamentary committee to investigate its affairs. Nothing came of it because the government parties claimed that this was a city matter and it didn't belong to the central government. Centrum, by the way, has contracts with six different districts. The suspicion is that if the company was paying off city officials in District VI then it is possible that similar corruption cases occurred elsewhere as well. To tell you the truth, I'm not at all surprised that Centrum took advantage of this situation. The opportunity was right there. One authority puts the clamps on while another takes them off. The more they put on the more must be taken off at 14,400 Ft. a clip.
Even before the wheel clamping case came to light the ombudsman, Máté Szabó, complained about Centrum. He announced that when Centrum gives a ticket it should also take a photo to prove the legality of the ticket! Surely, there are simpler, easier solutions. Like a few thousand parking meters and smart cards. When the meter says "expired" the meter maid can ticket the car. On it is everything one needs to know. Time, place, amount of the fine. How difficult it is to collect is another matter. But one thing is sure: one cannot wait for years before a second notice. Centrum was not doing its job. Or rather, besides taking clamps off, I don't think they do much. For example, they hired a collection agency to try to get payment for fines years overdue. My feeling is that outsourcing parking is a very bad idea. Centrum, for example, claims that 45% of its profit goes back to the districts it works for. A lot of people doubt the veracity of this claim. Most likely they rob the districts blind while giving kickbacks to corrupt officials. Parking in Budapest should be centralized just as there shouldn't be twenty-three different district governments. However, changing the setup needs Fidesz support in parliament. Fidesz has refused until now to cooperate. If they manage to get a two-thirds majority it's possible that they will be willing to move in that direction, although rationalization of city governments most likely would hurt a lot of special interests including those of Fidesz.