A program launched by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department 10 years ago to catch people illegally parked in handicap spaces has raised nearly $5 million in revenue for the county.
The department’s Handicap Parking Patrol, which also works to catch those who have failed to register their vehicle’s tags, has worked so well it’s even taken Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott by surprise.
“It’s been more successful than we ever thought,” says Lott, who once persuaded Richland County Council to give his department $20,000 to cover a few part-time salaries and administrative costs. At the time, Lott says, he was thinking the largely volunteer-run program would return maybe $100,000 a year while working to catch those who violated handicap parking laws.
To date, the program has identified 4,200 violators who were parked illegally in handicap spaces, generating $47,000 in fines. The program’s expired-tag component has identified 34,647 expired license tags generating $4.8 million in revenue, including delinquent property taxes collected as part of that effort.
“We had no idea it would be like this,” he said. “And the thing that’s made it this successful has been the volunteers.”
Launched on Black Friday in 2002, the program began solely as a way to spot offenders parking illegally in handicap parking spaces. It’s a problem that Lott says is particularly egregious around the holiday shopping season when violators, who are otherwise able-bodied, think parking in handicap spaces near shop entrances is OK.
In 2003, after public outcry grew over then-Columbia city councilman E.W. Cromartie’s use of his mother’s handicap parking permit, demand for the new initiative exploded.
Seeing someone suspected of parking illegally in a space meant for the disabled is not only infuriating for a lot of people, but Lott says it’s a personal pet peeve of his as well.
“It’s awful,” he said. “To have those who deserve that privilege be denied that space by lazy people is awful. And that’s all it is, is laziness.”
As the program picked up steam and more volunteers joined, a funny thing happened. Coordinators began hearing from volunteers who also were spotting lapsed license tags.
In many cases, those same expired tags were held by those who had failed to pay property taxes. So the idea to have volunteers look for these expired license tags — with county officials checking into property tax records — was put into action.
Today, the program employs three part-time employees and 25 trained volunteers.
Volunteers are trained never to be confrontational, Lott says, but to record the license tag of the suspected vehicle. They then either call or email that information to the department.
Jim Katz, who started out as a volunteer, then, after retiring, became one of the program’s part-time staff members, said he became involved after seeing the struggles of disabled family members first-hand.
“I had heard them mention that it is sometimes hard to find a space,” he said.
Having extra sets of eyes helping out the county is what has made the program such a success, Lott says.
Catching expired tags in particular has saved the department manpower hours. His officers rarely have to go out after those offenders once they’ve gotten a letter from his department.
“The tax people tell us they know when we send letters out,” he says. “There is usually a long line at their offices.”
Richland County Treasurer David Adams says the program has been very beneficial to the county.
Ten years ago, expired tags could be spotted “all around Columbia,” Adams said. But that’s changed now.
“It took a long time for folks to realize the county was serious about delinquent taxes,” he said.
Since the volunteers began looking for expired tags, the program has almost eliminated the problem of delinquent registrations, he said.
It also helps ensure the county collects revenue in a more timely manner.
“The sooner we can get it in, the quicker that money can be used for what it was intended to be used for,” he said.
Want to volunteer?
The county is looking for more volunteers to join its Handicap Parking Patrol. For information call (803) 576-3000
By the numbers
Richland County’s Handicap Parking Patrol
Year patrol was founded
Total fines collected for parking illegally in handicapped spaces
Total fines collected for expired license tags
Volunteers working with program, along with three paid part-timers
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.