And then they give us notice. And I had to go back to the city because the parking department is different from the city. We showed all the documents, and it was fine."
Neither Service Concrete nor NEQE were cited for improper postings of their tow-away signs. Most violators are never cited. Elsner told us it is obvious that contractors often ignore the law, which, if violated, carries a penalty of up to $1,000 per day.
"When we learn about a tow zone without a permit, we go out and enforce the law," he said. "But we only have four inspectors."
At the height of summer last year, when construction was in full swing, there was a three-week backlog for the verification process, according to Elsner.
Getting street space used to be automatic, until the Board of Supervisors amended Section 724 of the Public Works Code in 2002. Before, the price of a building permit determined the length of time contractors could usurp parking spaces.
"In the past the street space durations, the amount of time you were given for a building space, was directly related to the cost of your project," Elsner said. "If you had a $40 million project, you got four years' parking. So if you finished in three years, you had a year of free parking. The Board of Supervisors looked at this and decided there was something wrong. Now permits are issued on a monthly basis, six-month maximum. You pay per 20 linear feet, basically one parking space, $82.08."
Elsner said the public cannot tell simply by reading a sign whether it has been legally posted. "They may have filled the sign out correctly, but that doesn't mean they have a permit," he said. The revised ordinance requires temporary tow-away signs to have the permit number on them in addition to the contractor's name and phone number. But some contractors don't bother to apply.
"Our biggest problem we have is with roofers," Elsner observed. "They get a permit to do a roof and say they don't need a street space. What do you mean you don't need a street space permit? Either the building has a huge setback or they intend to fly in by helicopter."
Elsner said the street space ordinance has no set hours or days a contractor may use a street space. "That is worked out with the inspector," he said. "If they are not working, their parking should be for public use."
He said he warns contractors that they are responsible for affixing the signs so they aren't torn down. If there is no sign, the Department of Parking and Traffic is not obliged to tow.
Every day a new list of valid permits is sent to the DPT tow desk. However, some contractors have learned it is cheaper and easier to buy a few paper signs, fill them out, and tape them up rather than get a valid street permit. A sign costs $1.99 at White Cap Industries, a construction supply company.
Cheryl Duperrault is one of the street improvement inspectors at the Bureau of Street Use and Mapping who respond to public complaints. Of the 93 citations issued in 2006, she wrote 32, nearly a third. Duperrault said she cited contractors who simply posted a fake tow-away sign and never sought a permit.
"That has happened," she said. "I'm surprised it doesn't happen more than it does. It's easy to tell whether or not the street space permit is valid because they should have a big white placard visible from the street. It gives the information of the permit." *
The DPW offers a free brochure that describes the process of applying for street and sidewalk permits. The brochure is available at its offices on Stevenson Street or by fax or mail. A permit is required when anyone intends to block the public right-of-way "to construct, improve, excavate, occupy, and/or perform work." There is a hotline (415-554-5810) to see if there is a permit on file.