Along the Coast: 'Predatory parking'

Drivers stunned by bills from private lots; new state law aims for clearer experience

By Charles Elmore and Anne Geggis

Drivers say they have been stunned by bills of $55, $90 or more from private parking lots in southern Palm Beach County, with some reporting they even got charged for rolling through without parking, records requested by The Coastal Star show.

“I’ve fallen victim,” Delray Beach Commissioner Rob Long said at a May 3 meeting of getting billed about $70 for parking on a movie trip.

“Yeah, it’s crazy,” Long said. “Even if you know Delray, it’s easy to fall into that trap by accident. These lots — they are predatory.”

State regulations limit what local governments can do about such concerns, but a new Florida law effective July 1 addresses what private parking lot signs must say, sets down rules for appeals and late fees, and establishes a 15-minute grace period for those just passing through.

Whether that quells the waves of complaints remains to be seen. Gripes about private lots in the region, including in Boca Raton and Delray Beach, join a growing pile of similar concerns statewide. 

The complaints take issue with systems that tout the convenience of paying by phone or other digital means but deliver charges, sometimes by windshield notices or conventional mail, that drivers say left them outraged.

The Florida Attorney General’s Office signed an “assurance of voluntary compliance” last year with at least one parking company operating in southern Palm Beach County, among other places, requiring a payment of $30,000 from the company, records show.

In Delray Beach, city officials have discussed ways to call the public’s attention to differences between city lots and private lots, which may have signs of different colors.

Complicating matters is that the same phone app may be used at some public and private lots.

“You know, we have to be mindful that unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to control predatory practices,” City Attorney Lynn Gelin said at the May 3 meeting. “We get the calls all the time because people do think that they are city lots.”

Professional Parking Management
The attorney general’s office agreement was with Professional Parking Management Corp., which has offices in Fort Lauderdale. Without admitting wrongdoing, the company agreed to pay $30,000 to the state for restitution to eligible consumers, documents show.

The agreement, signed Sept. 1, calls for the parking company not to engage in unfair or deceptive business practices and to disclose certain information on signs at the lot about what financial obligations drivers can face. The company also agreed not to call its fees a “ticket” or “citation” such as a governmental body might enforce.

Parking companies sometimes use license plate readers. These can generate photographic snaps that are incorporated into letters telling drivers they owe money, not unlike mail that consumers can get from agencies that run Florida’s Turnpike or other toll roads.  

Scores of complaints in the public record against Professional Parking Management in the last 18 months include several from drivers living or parking in southern Palm Beach County.

‘An attempt to intimidate’
James Cioffi of Lake Worth Beach said he parked at a lot in Boca Raton with no notice of a cost for parking that he could see. When he came back to his car, there was a “parking charge notice” saying he owed $55 to park and pay online.

Then he received a letter from Professional Parking Management saying he owed $90, he said.

“There is an attempt to intimidate stating they would tow my car and refer to collections,” he wrote in a complaint to the attorney general.

Sharron Feldman of Boynton Beach said she was charged $96.30 for parking in a lot in Delray Beach.

She drove through the lot but never parked there, she said.

“It is outrageous that this company can demand money for a service that we never used, threaten us with a collection agency, and force us to waste a good deal of time and energy on this matter,” she said.

Chase Krusbe of Jupiter said he parked in a garage in Delray Beach and thought he paid the parking charge when he left. Then he got notices saying he owed $96.75.

“They claim the charge is for ‘overstaying,’” he said. “I don’t know what that means. I parked. I paid. I left.”

Salvatore LaRusso of Wellington said he parked in a lot in Boca Raton, paid $10.55, but still got billed an additional $55. He asserted receipts showed he had not exceeded the paid time but he received warnings his car could be booted at the company’s managed lots if he did not pay up.

Laura Levine of Boca Raton said she parked in a handicapped spot in Delray Beach to accompany her 92-year-old mother at a restaurant gathering. She believed she paid correctly using a phone app because a response message said she was “done.”

Then came notification claiming she owed $55.

“I shouldn’t have to pay this ticket because the app didn’t work and I even tried to pay by other methods,” she said.

Catherine Valenzuela of Delray Beach said, “Professional Parking Management sent a notice of collection and is charging an excess amount of $90 for less than one hour.”

Company response
In a statement, PPM said it is committed to resolving such issues.

“Over the last year or so, we have significantly increased and enhanced our customer service functions and we feel that is helping parkers resolve issues they may have with the technology or process of parking and paying for parking in lots we work with,” the statement said. “We also feel that the new law and its requirements, most of which our company was already using as industry best practices, will also help make parking and the process of paying for parking easier on the driving public.”

The company said it provided “feedback to the legislature throughout the process” of crafting the new law.

PPM’s statement said, “The signage and grace period requirements in the law make it clear that if a parker disagrees with the posted rules and rates, they can leave without penalty.”

A complicated new law
Florida HB 271 passed in this year’s state legislative session and was approved by the governor April 5. It takes effect July 1.

Regarding signs at the private lot, it requires: “The signage must state that the property is not operated by a governmental entity, list the rates for parking charges for violating the rules of the property owner or operator, provide a working phone number and an e-mail address to receive inquiries and complaints, and provide notice of the grace period and appeal process provided by this section.”

12626791487?profile=RESIZE_710xLots of signs, with lots of words, but not the cost to park. What’s a driver to do? A new state law that takes effect in July will require additional information be provided at privately owned parking lots, but it won’t make the signs that much easier to understand. Staff photos/The Coastal Star

Such signage may be regulated by city and county governments, the law says, though another section says local governments cannot ban such parking businesses or otherwise regulate their rules and rates.

Among other features of the new law, parking companies cannot sell the personal information of customers.

Lot operators must allow a 15-minute grace period without charges for someone who drives through but does not actually park. Many private lots do not have traditional gates, booths, attendants or payment kiosks, so it can be an unfamiliar or confusing setting for a number of folks.

Under the new law, late fees are not allowed until certain notice periods and appeals processes have been followed. Reading and understanding these can get a bit more complicated than the typical shopper might expect on a day of errands.

“An invoice for parking charges issued under this section must include a method to dispute and appeal the invoice by a party who believes they have received the invoice in error,” the text of HB 271 says. “Such dispute must be filed with the parking lot owner or operator within 15 days after the invoice is placed on the motor vehicle or after the postmarked date of the mailing of the invoice.”

In turn, the parking lot owner or operator will have five business days in which to render a decision on the dispute, the text says. The consumer then has 10 days to appeal the decision of the parking lot owner or operator.

The final call
“The appeal must be determined by a neutral third-party adjudicator with the authority to review and approve or deny the appeal,” the law says. “If the appeal is approved, the invoice shall be dismissed. If the appeal is denied, the party shall pay the original invoice within 15 days after the decision of the adjudicator.”

Republican Rep. Demi Busatta Cabrera of Coral Gables, a co-sponsor of the bill with Rep. Vicki Lopez (R-Miami-Dade County), said that, if there’s a dispute over fees, the legislation calls for the parking company to hire the third-party adjudicator to make the final call.

She said she didn’t see a need for the law to contain prescriptions about parking prices.

“Rep. Lopez and I worked to ensure the public is protected while also balancing private property rights, by allowing the market to dictate what the private companies charge and ensuring their practices are fair and not predatory,” Busatta Cabrera said. 

The question remains whether all this will clear up heartburn for drivers like Robin Rothman of Boynton Beach, who parked in a private lot in Delray Beach and saw a sign with a bar code for payment, Rothman reported in a complaint. After entering a license plate number and phone number, Rothman recounted being charged $19.80 by credit card.

Rothman received a letter saying $64.12 was due for nonpayment. Attempts to explain or resolve the situation led to frustration, Rothman reported.

“It is really sad when companies can take advantage of people outright and there is nothing we can do about it,” Rothman said.

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