PORTLAND — A two-year-old company is transforming the way private parking lots operate in the city.
But some customers aren’t thrilled with the changes, and the city has asked it to clarify its policies.
“It is something new to Maine and to Portland, but it is not something we came up with on our own,” Unified Parking Partners co-owner Dan McNutt said Monday.
Along with partner Sam Medile, McNutt has developed a comprehensive service that manages about 40 parking lots, and provides valet and shuttle services at hotels and restaurants.
The company’s parking-lot clients are generally commercial property owners who may lease spaces to area businesses and employees during business hours, leaving Unified to manage public parking in the private lots evenings and weekends. They include the Portland Public Market garage on Cumberland Avenue; lots at 68 Commercial St. and 385 Congress St., near City Hall, and at 6 Monument Square, plus the Westin Portland Harborview and Marriott Courtyard hotels.
But the company’s policy of immobilizing overtime and unpaid vehicles with a “Denver boot” has earned Unified some social media notoriety. In one review on Yelp, a visitor from New Jersey said the company should be called “Unified Parking Pirates.”
The managed lots are all pay and display, similar to the city’s latest on-street parking spaces and off-street lots: Parkers are expected to feed a central meter and place a receipt on their dashboard that indicates an expiration time.
Unlike the city, however, which charges $1 per hour (with a two-hour maximum), Unified’s rates begin at either $2 or $5 an hour, depending on the lot. Also, the city can only boot vehicles that have three outstanding parking violations at least 10 days old; Unified routinely boots cars that don’t display tickets or are parked overtime.
The fee to remove a boot is either $40 or $70, McNutt said, depending on how long a ticket has been expired or whether a customer paid for the parking space at all. The city, in comparison, charges $50 to remove a boot, plus payment of all outstanding parking fines.
“It is our only recourse,” McNutt said of the policy. “We have no way to force people to pay tickets the way the municipality can.”
He said the boot is also preferable to the alternative.
“Towing is the last thing we want to do,” he said. “(That) is a far more unpleasant experience.”
In April, the company was asked by city officials to add information to its signs and meters that better explains Unified lots are not owned or operated by the city, and that customers are required to pay for parking at all times, including after 6 p.m. and on Sundays, when municipal parking is free.
More recently, the company was asked to clarify its boot policy.
“We just wanted them to make (it) clear, so that people definitely saw it before leaving the lot,” City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said Aug. 21.
Scarborough resident Harriet Schultz said her experience in April left her reluctant to park again in downtown Portland.
“I never had a boot on my car, I have no outstanding tickets,” Schultz said this week. “I had no idea anyone other than the Portland police would boot my car.”
Schultz said she was parked in a lot on Shepley Street, a one-block street between Casco and Oak streets, because Unified’s “big blue ‘P’ (sign) said ‘public parking’ to me.”
Unified’s parking enforcement division has seven part- and full-time employees. It is managed by Andy Martin, who worked in the city’s parking division for 26 years.
“The majority of people we have interaction with take responsibility,” Martin said. “Those are the people we never hear from, or Yelp never hears from.”
McNutt said the company is happy to work with the city to ensure customers understand the company’s policies, and tries to post at least 15 signs at every lot.
Most customers understand the policies and what is at stake, he said. Only 1.6 percent of Unified’s nearly 25,000 parking lot transactions in July resulted in cars getting a boot.
He also said the company will soon introduce a smartphone app that will alert customers to expiring tickets and allow them to purchase additional time.
McNutt said the lots have always been well-posted, above and beyond what city ordinances require, and he is willing to discuss the policies with customers who approach him “reasonably.”
“We issue refunds (daily) to folks who were booted,” he said.
Unified’s staff also photographs expired or missing tickets, and the vehicle tire, before placing a boot. They also leave a note on the vehicle instructing customers where to call to have the boot removed.
When employees arrive to remove the boot, the interaction is videotaped, leaving McNutt confident that claims of rude service or even intimidation are exaggerated.
“Those are 100 percent false accusations,” he said.