Crackdown sought on parking for the disabled
Newark residents cite abuse in city's Ironbound section
Monday, February 17, 2003

BY JEFFERY C. MAYS
Star-Ledger Staff

Acio Pinto lives on Niagara Street in Newark's East Ward, where parking is so bad that he seldom moves his car after 5 p.m.

Part of the problem is that the East Ward -- home to the city's Ironbound section -- is densely populated with two- and three-family houses and many illegal housing unit conversions.

The other problem: There are eight handicapped parking spaces on the short block between Marne and Komorn streets, six of which are reserved for individual permit holders.

"I'm 77 years old and I don't even have a handicapped space," Pinto said. "Some of the people don't even live here."

In an area where competition for a parking space is fierce -- parking stickers are already required on several streets closest to Newark Penn Station -- East Ward residents say the handicapped spots are used as a way for some people who don't really have disabilities to reserve their own private parking space, as a perk for someone buying or renting a home or even as a money-making venture.

Newark officials said there are more than 1,266 reserved handicapped parking spaces throughout the city, though they are not sure how many are in the East Ward. But a quick survey of the four blocks surrounding Komorn Street found more than 20.

Fines for parking in the spots without a permit are $100 and the cost of a tow for first-time offenders. Repeat offenders get 90 days community service as well.

Community activist Manuel Lavin said residents in the East Ward -- which has seen a surge in residential development -- have complained about the problem for
years.

"We must have the most number of handicapped people per square mile than anywhere else on earth," Lavin said. "It prevents the truly handicapped from getting spaces."

In an effort to address the problem, the Newark City Council has approved an ordinance that makes it more difficult to get the handicapped spaces. The new law, proposed by East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador, requires doctors to certify that they have examined the person in question and that the person suffers from a real disability.

Until now, individuals only had to submit a copy of their handicapped parking permit from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, pay $5 and swear they were telling the truth to get the city to install a reserved handicapped parking sign in front of their residence.

Under a previous law, the city council was supposed to pass a resolution approving each reserved handicapped space, but that hasn't happened since 1997, according to city records. Applicants have not even been required to submit proof of address.

But even with improvements at the state and city level, Amador said there are still handicapped signs in his ward that are being misused by people with garages and people who no longer live at the address.

Amador has proposed having the city's engineering or law department examine all 1,200 of the city's reserved handicapped spaces and eliminate those that were not properly obtained or are being misused.

"Parking is hard to get and because the process is very lax and simple, it became a culture, a habit, a way of obtaining legal parking," Amador said.
It's more like an epidemic, residents said.

On Komorn Street, between Niagara and Wilson, there are 10 handicapped parking signs, half of which are reserved for people with a specific permit. On Marne Street, between Wilson and Niagara streets, there are six signs. On Amador's block, Lafayette Street, near Merchant Street, there are eight signs, including one next to his house that belongs to a neighbor.

"You just don't see this in other parts of the city," Amador said.

Mariana Nork, senior vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of People with Disabilities, said some disabilities are not visible, but handicapped parking space abuse is a problem in most large cities.

"The biggest sufferers are people with severe disabilities. There are a few bad apples that ruin it for everyone," Nork said. "When there is abuse there must be a system in place to handle it."

Derrick Stokes, a DMV spokesman, conceded the state's system of granting handicapped placards and plates is flawed.

"It's based on the honor system," Stokes said. "There is no detailed verification process and that leaves it open to abuse, especially in urban areas where parking is a privilege."

No one at the state level verifies that the form submitted by a doctor certifying a handicap is legitimate, he said.

"All we are checking for is a doctor's name and policy number. If it has a certain number of characters, we don't even check," Stokes said.

According to the DMV, more than 52,000 handicapped license plates and 277,516 handicapped placards are in use by New Jersey drivers.

A new computer system to be installed under legislation passed last month to repair problems at the DMV should allow for cross-checks with other state databases, including doctor's licenses, Stokes said. An optimistic estimate on the arrival of the new system is two years, he said.

Lavin, a life-long East Ward resident, said he would have liked the ordinance to fine applicants and doctors for falsifying forms to further discourage fraud.

But he said any relief is welcome.

"Your quality of life is impacted in a very negative way because your life is dictated by a parking space," he said. "You're afraid to leave because you won't find a space."

Jeffery C. Mays covers Newark City Hall. He may be reached at jmays@starledger.com or (973) 392-4149.

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