When Harry Lichtenbaum points his Dodge Charger down his Wethersfield driveway toward the capital city, uncertainty rides shotgun.
Parking is always a challenge for the 86-year-old, who jokes that he walks about as slow as he drives ever since spinal surgery seven years ago.
For all of those seven years, Lichtenbaum has hung a state-issued handicapped parking placard from his rearview mirror. In most towns, it frees him from feeding the meter.
But not in Hartford, not anymore. Starting last Friday, the city’s Parking Authority is charging even handicapped permit-holders for parking. The policy, while not prohibited by state statute, has angered some drivers who carry the placards.
Officials with the Hartford Parking Authority have defended the decision, saying their research shows “significant permit abuse” — one out of every six cars parked downtown use the handicapped-accessible parking placards, they claim.
The switch to payment, they argue, will increase accessibility to those that truly need it. And the practice itself is already in place in other cities, including New Haven, Norwalk and Bridgeport.
But most municipalities, including those bordering the city, still waive parking fees, essentially allowing free, unlimited parking for placard-holders.
“You’ve got to be a Philadelphia lawyer to figure all this out — I don’t want to learn 169 different parking rules,” Lichtenbaum said. “It’s not very friendly to out-of-town people, to out-of-state people, and it’s unfriendly to people who live in Hartford.”
Statewide advocates for people with disabilities — usually the go-to mediators for matters like this — shrug their shoulders. There’s little guidance from lawmakers, leaving each of Connecticut’s city halls to craft its own policy.
Where the state statute is most vague is how the placards interact with municipal parking laws. The language says a permit-holder is able to park “for an unlimited period of time without penalty” regardless of parking meters or posted signs. The statute doesn’t, however, mention paying for parking.
Because of that omission, Eric Boone, the executive director of the Hartford Parking Authority, explored the option of using payments to combat the fraud he says he observed over the last few years — a median of 17 percent of cars parked downtown use handicap placards, his workers found during multiple surveys.
That number seemed too high for Boone.
“We can’t prove fraud in the sense that we know the use of any given placard is explicitly fraudulent; we don’t have the ability to go to the DMV to check each one,” Boone said. “What we do know is that when you look at state demographics about disabilities, that about half are bogus. We just don’t know which half.”
Boone defends his claims of fraud with a specific formula, dividing the number of ambulatory handicapped adults in Connecticut by the state’s population. He found, at maximum, that 7 percent of the state’s population should be eligible for handicapped-accessible parking.
“We took an analytical approach to a very emotional problem to ensure people’s physical needs are met,” Boone said. “We found a solution that we think is par for the course in other cities and have protections for those who need it.”
Statistics from the state DMV show that there are 6,022 placards issued to Hartford residents — about 4 percent of the 238,903 permanent placards active in Connecticut.
When asked about the possibility of fraud, Bill Seymour, the chief of staff for the state DMV, said that “without observing the person driving and/or riding in the vehicle, it's difficult to determine if the car is parked illegally providing the permit is displayed.”
“This is a local police enforcement issue,” Seymour said. “We ensure that the proper medical certification is given for the permit. After that point, it's a police issue.”
In the last four years, the Hartford Parking Authority has issued 7,301 citations for “handicap violations,” according to data Boone provided. That number, however, applies to any violation related to handicapped parking — the authority doesn’t separate, for instance, people caught using placards fraudulently.
Data from the state’s Judicial Branch sheds some additional detail on activity in Hartford. Between 2014 and the present, tickets were issued by police departments for the following offenses:
- 181 drivers in Hartford (11 percent of the state total) were cited for parking in a designated disabled parking space.
- 46 drivers in Hartford (33 percent of the state total) were cited for using a deceased person’s disabled-parking placard after their death.
- 144 drivers in Hartford (20 percent of the state total) were cited for “unauthorized display” of a disabled parking plate or placard.
Regardless of the data informing the decision, Boone says the new payment policy is not a symptom of Hartford’s budget crisis. He says conversations about the change predate “the current administration,” and involved several community stakeholders.
One such stakeholder was Gretchen Knauff, the director of Disability Rights Connecticut, a statewide advocacy group for people with disabilities.
She said her organization’s role was to share the most common difficulties drivers face, not help Hartford form the policy itself.
“There really are no generalized best practices, because each municipality interprets this statute to the best way they see,” Knauff said. “In general there has been concern, and not just in Hartford, of individuals using the parking permits of others.”
Knauff said her group and several of its counterparts have tried, unsuccessfully, to get the state attorney general to weigh in on the handicapped-parking statute where payment is concerned. Other states, notably Massachusetts, explicitly exclude placard-holders from paying any parking fees.
“There isn't any one standard that everyone is happy with," Knauff said. “We don’t have a stance on how it should be managed. I think there should be a clarification of the statute advocating that, but that just hasn’t happened.”
Some city activists argue that, if the law is truly that pliable, the burden of fighting fraud should fall on the state itself.
Anne Goshdigian, one such activist, has made that case repeatedly, saying that everything from the placard applications to the parking rules are “a function of the state.”
“The city of Hartford's allegation that their new policy will help eliminate permit and plate fraud and abuse is a specious argument; it is not in their purview, and will actually do little, if anything, to make a dent in abuse,” Goshdigian said. “All it is doing is taking away a long-standing courtesy and privilege from residents and visitors to Hartford, many of them disabled and elderly, and creating ill will and expense for those who are already dealing with serious health and mobility issues.”
Ultimately, Goshdigian fears that the practice of payment will be too prohibitive and may discourage drivers from visiting Hartford.
Candace Low, the executive director of Independence Unlimited, a center for independent living on New Park Avenue, knows that many elderly or disabled drivers live on a fixed income. She counts herself among that group and believes that parking fees will discourage her and her colleagues from visiting downtown.
“It will be energy- and cost-prohibitive for me,” she said. “My energy levels determine what I will do on any given day, and it seems the changes have added the need for more energy to accomplish my tasks.”
As winter approaches, she urges the city to “be committed to helping all citizens,” and to stop making broad assumptions about handicapped drivers.
“All the disability community wants is access to the community like everyone else,” she said. “We want to live and work and enjoy the community.”