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Aug. 18, 2022

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Paltry payoff for those who pilfer downtown Vancouver parking meters

City of Vancouver seeks to thwart thieves by frequent collection

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

Who knew Paul Newman would have inspired petty criminals after portraying one in 1967?

Well, there isn’t exactly an indisputable correlation between his titular character, Luke Jackson, in “Cool Hand Luke” and downtown Vancouver’s persistent rate of coin-operated meter thefts. Before understanding the film’s alleged influence, it’s imperative to know how it opens.

As darkness falls on an empty parking lot, Jackson meanders through comically abundant lines of parking meters and slowly walks a fastened pipe cutter around each one. Meter tops easily pop off their poles at the cut and contents jingle inside as they hit the ground.

Although the anti-establishment character immediately gets arrested for the act, the petty crime continues to occur in reality decades after the film’s initial release.

Steve Kaspan, Vancouver’s parking manager, said stealing coin-operated meters in the community is not a new situation. Recently, 24 meters were either pulled from the ground or sawed off over a three-month period. So, what financial impact does this have on the city?

A miniscule amount compared with other municipal operations.

The city of Vancouver took about a $750 hit through the thievery. Meters hold up to $100, and collectors routinely empty them before they reach max capacity, so they are seldom full when stolen. Vancouver only loses the actual coins in the device and absorbs the cost to replace the post. There is a substantial number of meters in storage after being replaced with pay stations over the years, so Vancouver doesn’t have to purchase replacements, Kaspan said.

Despite the petty crimes leading to a rather mundane impact on the city, residents in downtown Vancouver notice the absence of the machines.

Joyce Boles, 76, of Vancouver became aware of the meter thefts around her apartment complex about two weeks ago. And it made her chuckle.

It reminded Boles of a story she pursued when she was a journalist in Portland during the late 1970s. A man was awaiting sentencing for stealing coins for beer money from a parking meter. He approached Boles’ newspaper, The Community Press, to observe the judge’s decision out of fear for legal retribution.

The Multnomah County, Ore., judge, James Ellis, was apparently notorious at the time for serving tough punishments, and the offender was concerned he would go to prison for a petty offense — similar to “Cool Hand Luke.” He wanted the media to be present if that was the case, Boles said, but the perpetrator’s anxiety outweighed the result of his sentencing because he only had to face probation.

Although Vancouver’s recent meter thefts roused peculiar memories of Boles’ career, she said they may be indicative of other issues. Boles, who has lived in the area for 12 years, said three cars were stolen within one month from her apartment’s parking lot, leading her to become more cognizant of local crime.

“I’ve had a lot of it right outside my bedroom window,” Boles said. “So, I have a distorted attitude. But I don’t know if it’s true, whether there’s more crime or not.”

There isn’t a way to prevent meter theft from happening, Kaspan said, but staff are collecting higher grossing machines more frequently to cut down on losses. He added that this changes the risk and reward for those stealing the coins.

Eventually, the city will completely phase out all coin-operated meters and replace them with pay stations and the Parking Kitty App. Change is inevitable and perhaps more imminent, depending on the rate in which coin-operated meters are snatched.

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