Parking Cheaters: The series

Monday: People without disabilities using DMV-issued handicapped placardsToday: The state's lax record keeping helps placard cheaters get away with it.Wednesday: Stopping the cheaters. Here's how.Thursday: Misuse harms the legitimately disabled.Other stories coming soon on Watchdog:P-Tags: People misuse P-tags, tooCoin Jammers: How cheaters jam meters and rip off taxpayersAirport scammers: How people use placards to get free parking at airportsMarket cheaters: Vendors at City Market say people use placards because of frustration.And more ...

People who misuse those familiar blue-and-white handicap placards may save themselves hundreds of dollars a year or more by parking for free at meters or in public garages.

But these able-bodied cheaters are costing the city big bucks.

Day after day on Glebe, Wentworth and King streets near the College of Charleston, metered spots are filled with cars sporting disabled placards and College of Charleston decals.

One recent morning, for instance, two young men parked a Cadillac at a metered spot on Wentworth in downtown Charleston and walked toward the college. According to state records, the placard hanging in the car's windshield belongs to a woman in her 70s.

Another day at Charleston's City Market, 22 vans, trucks and other vehicles parked next to the stalls had handicap hang tags — free parking in the heart of the city's busiest tourist area.

"I'd say half of the vendors do it," said one, who asked that his name not be used "because a lot of these guys are my friends." He said most do it so they can park for free.

"They save eight dollars a day if they had to feed the meters. The woman next to me," he said, lowering his voice. "She's not handicapped. If you can unload your truck, you probably shouldn't get one of those (handicap hang tags.)"

A few stalls away, Pamela Polk unloaded her van. Polk is an art dealer and said her doctor signed off on a handicap placard because she has "high stress." She said parking enforcement around the Market had become so intense, it caused her blood pressure to spike. Now that she has the placard, her blood pressure has improved, she added.

Another vendor, Jim Antosca, stood at his stall selling costume jewelry, not far from his car, which had a red temporary handicap placard. He said he had a problem with his sciatic nerve, and the handicap parking issue has irked him for years.

On a slow winter's day last year, he surveyed the Market and spotted 16 handicap tags parked in metered spaces. He estimated that each of these spaces could generate $1,687 a year if people weren't trying to beat the system. "The city is losing a lot of revenue," he said.

How much?

City officials aren't sure.

They don't keep records on how much money specific meters take in, said Steve Bedard, the city's chief financial officer. But he acknowledged that placard cheaters are a problem. "We'll look at it," he said.

Doing a little math shows how the misuse can add up.

The city loses as much as $6.75 per meter per day when someone with a handicap placard uses the space.

If 100 cheaters take these metered spots each of the six days they are enforced, that's $675 in lost revenue — or more than $200,000 a year. That's a potentially big hit when you consider that the city's 1,800 parking meters will bring in about $935,000 this year.

How big a problem

Is the problem that widespread?

On any given day around the medical complex, more than 120 vehicles with handicap hang tags occupy metered spots, a Post and Courier survey showed.

The newspaper recently examined placards in this area and three other downtown Charleston neighborhoods. Reporters recorded placard numbers, license tags and other information.

Using data from the Department of Motor Vehicles, the newspaper found that about 60 percent of the placards were registered to other vehicles.

This mismatch is not an automatic indicator of fraud because placards are issued to people, not vehicles.

But DMV officials say it's often a strong indication that a motorist is using someone else's placard, especially when a vehicle parks for hours in front of a meter, or is seen day after day in the same area.

For city parking enforcement officers, a mismatch is usually not enough evidence for a $100 parking ticket. They have to catch violators in the act, or spend hours investigating state motor vehicle records, officials said.

The state's lax record-keeping doesn't help.

The newspaper analyzed the state's database on placards and found it had major holes.

The DMV data, for instance, had no license tag information on nearly half the placards issued in the tri-county area.

The agency asks for license plate info on its application forms but won't turn down applicants if that space is left blank, said Beth Park, communication director for the Department of Motor Vehicles.

She said many disabled people don't have vehicles but may still need a handicapped placard when a relative or friend drives them somewhere.

But the absence of license plate information makes it more difficult for parking officers to target potential cheaters.

Free parking wrong?

Indeed, local parking officials say the state could do more to curb the abuse.

Anthony Dunbar, director of public safety at the Medical University of South Carolina, said he and his officers are hesitant to pursue violators because of the time-consuming verification process.

"A law enforcement officer cannot check a hang tag and see who it belongs to. You have to contact DMV, and it takes several hours," he said.

Janet Schumacher, the city's expert on disability issues, trains parking enforcement officers to catch violators.

The officers can check a person's driver's license to verify whether their date of birth matches the expiration date on the placard. It's supposed to match.

But the city does not allow its parking officers to ask about a person's reason for having a placard, she said. "You can't say 'What's your disability?' It's a medical privacy issue."

Still, the city issued 1,083 citations for misuse of handicap placards last year and 623 so far this year.

This widespread abuse raises a question: Should people with disabilities automatically park for free in the first place?

Schumacher, who is disabled and has disabled children, wonders whether it's time to change the law that gives disabled people this financial perk.

The law should make it easier for disabled people to move about, she said, adding that being disabled doesn't automatically make you poor. "Once the barriers have been removed, we should pay the same bill."

NEXT: PARKING CHEATS: WHAT CAN BE DONE?