Fee on disabled parking permits unjust, judge rules
By LUCY MORGAN and MELIA BOWIE
TALLAHASSEE -- A Miami judge has struck down Florida's $15 fee for handicapped parking permits and ordered the state to refund money it has collected since 1992.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Amy Steele Donner ruled the $15 fee violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. Her decision last week could force the state to refund up to $30-million to thousands of people.
Since 1992, federal law has required states to issue handicapped parking permits without charging a fee, but Florida continued to charge up to $15 per permit. The federal law prohibits public agencies from charging a special fee to give access to the disabled.
During 1999-2000, the most recent year for which records are available, the state issued 177,428 handicapped parking permits. Disabled veterans and those receiving Supplemental Social Security income qualify for discounted permits.
The state does not know if it will appeal the ruling.
"We just got a copy of the ruling today," said Bob Sanchez, spokesman for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
The news was already being greeted by motorists.
"Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!" exclaimed Jerome Brown.
Brown has a disabled parking tag because he has trouble walking. On Monday, he was pulling up to the curb outside a K-Mart on 34th Street N in St. Petersburg to pick up his family.
They say they often have to circle parking lots for a disabled driver's space. They added that purchasing the decal was inconvenient and perks are few.
"If you go to a social event, you're still going to have to pay for parking," Brown said.
" ... If I go to Sea World or watch the Bucs I'll pay for parking, so it (the decal) really doesn't cover that much."
The judge ordered the state to refund all payments made since Jan. 26, 1992, plus interest, and cease collecting permit fees.
Lawyer Karen Gievers of Tallahassee said the ruling "is a good day for the disabled of Florida." Gievers and other lawyers who participated in the class-action lawsuits that were consolidated for a hearing in Miami-Dade County are also entitled to attorneys fees, the judge ruled.
"This has been a long time in coming," said George Locascio, a disabled veteran from St. Petersburg. "It's important to a lot of people who are living on basic Social Security."
Since 1998, Floridians with a permanent handicap could avoid paying the fee by getting a permanent license tag with the disabled permit embossed on the tag. Up until then, the state would issue tags only to the disabled in wheelchairs, a rule that forced everyone else with a medical problem and difficulty walking to buy the special handicapped tag that hangs on a car mirror.
Fred Dickinson, director of the state agency that handles license tags, agreed to change the policy in 1997 after an exchange of letters with federal officials who concluded the state was violating the federal act.
In 1995, the Legislature was notified that the parking fee, mandated by state law, was in violation of federal law but took no action.
"We thought we had complied with what they had asked us to do," said Sanchez, the highway agency's communications director.
But the department did not publicize the fact that handicapped citizens could buy a metal tag instead of getting the hanging tag, Sanchez acknowledged.
A lot of people thought they had to have both tags, said Locascio.
Sanchez said he is recommending changes in the department's Web site to better inform handicapped citizens of the ability to acquire a tag at no extra charge.
In interviews Monday, some drivers said they do not mind paying for the permits.
"So many people have them and don't need them," said Larry W. Wellington, 57, as he set his cane aside and prepared to climb into his pickup truck at the St. Petersburg K-Mart. "If you deserve it, you should be able to pay for it.
"If you start giving it away, people are going to take advantage of it."
He noted that there is a shortage of handicapped parking spaces but that some people abuse the decals by letting friends and family without disabilities use them.
Some said they were bothered by the principle behind the fee.
Pulling into the parking space Wellington had vacated just minutes before, Lily Vega, 78, and her daughter said the permits should be a privilege the elderly and disabled do not have to pay for.
Already, officials had begun charging extra dollars for additional decals, said Vega, whose daughter was driving her on an errand Monday.
"I think it's good that we can finally get something we don't have to pay for," she said. "They should be doing better for older people."
The state puts $13.50 of each $15 payment into a transportation trust fund for road building projects. Gievers complained that the state does not spend the money on improving access for the disabled.
The permit fee was challenged in lawsuits filed six years ago in federal court. They were deferred to state court where they were consolidated as a class-action lawsuit for a hearing last month.
The lawsuit was filed by Sergio Rendon, Joann M. Norris, James J. Silcock, Paul J. Lussier, Stephen R. Fisher and Lois V. Busick, all handicapped Floridians who were required to pay the fee.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire