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Parking in downtown Napa (copy)

With parking often tight in downtown, Napa is considering a contract to equip parking enforcement officers with license plate readers.

Napa officials are seeking a technology partner to help the city better track those drivers who linger too long in their parking spaces.

The city is seeking bids for a computerized system to allow parking enforcement officers to scan the license plates of vehicles overstaying two- and three-hour limits on downtown curbsides, surface lots and garages. Napa’s aim is to have such an enforcement system based on automated plate recognition approved and operating by this fall, according to Tony Valadez, city parking manager.

The recruitment is getting underway amid fewer citations and falling revenue from parking enforcement since 2013, when Napa’s previous contract for plate-reading equipment expired. Consultants to the city also have pointed to problems with the distribution and use of downtown Napa’s existing parking supply, as prized curbside spaces often are near capacity while outlying facilities like the Pearl Street garage often are only half full.

A plate-reading system that records a car’s license number and location will allow for more efficient parking enforcement than the traditional method of officers leaving chalk marks on the tires of cars overstaying the time limit, said Valadez.

Such an apparatus, when added to the city’s two parking enforcement vehicles, will allow officers to go on patrols at about 9 a.m. and noon to detect cars parked overtime. The plate reading apparatus would mesh with handheld devices that permit officers to print a citation on the spot.

“More than anything, I want to improve compliance downtown,” Valadez said this month. “Right now, we don’t have the data to say who are the main violators. Is it visitors, residents, business owners, employees? We really don’t know.”

Vacancies at five downtown parking facilities have shrunk since 2014 with the arrival of restaurants, wine-tasting rooms and multistory luxury hotels, a consulting firm advised Napa leaders last August. In a survey taken on two Thursday afternoons in June 2018, 85 percent of the slots at nine parking areas were filled, Dixon Resources Unlimited reported at the time.

Even as demand has grown, ticketing has lagged, according to the Dixon firm. Where Napa issued 8,684 parking citations in the 2013-14 fiscal year, that number reached just 5,485 in 2017-18.

Tickets were especially uncommon on evenings and weekends when downtown attractions are often at their busiest, consultants reported, saying the fall-off may be connected to the absence of Saturday or Sunday hours for enforcement officers. Seventy-three percent of citations in 2017-18 were issued from Tuesday to Thursday, when both of the city’s parking officers were on duty.

Vehicle information from a plate-reading system is intended for use only for tracking parking violations and not for police investigations, according to Valadez.

In the East Bay, a dispute over the possible reuse of license-plate data helped scuttle one city’s plate-reading contract.

The Richmond City Council in June voted to terminate a $10,000-a-year deal with Vigilant Solutions after activists alleged the company sells the resulting information to the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, potentially allowing ICE agents to target residents living in the U.S. illegally – despite Richmond policies barring city police from sharing such data with immigration authorities. Police Chief Allwyn Brown said there were no known cases of plate-derived data being used by ICE against Richmond residents.

Vigilant was an applicant in Napa’s first request for proposals for the system, which the city withdrew and relaunched in mid-July, according to Community Development Director Vin Smith.

Whatever vendor Napa selects, the equipment will be installed not in police patrol vehicles but in two parking enforcement cars that will replace the existing vehicles, according to Capt. Pat Manzer of Napa Police.

“There may come a day when we share (license-plate reader) data with law enforcement agencies for crime solving purposes, (but) if you look at this agency and the city as a whole, we’ve worked with state or federal partners but we’ve been careful with how we share information,” he said. “I won’t say someday it won’t happen, but I can tell you right now we don’t at this point.”

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Information from Bay City News Service was used in this report.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.