SYCAMORE, Ill. — Mike Stolarski didn't need but a few minutes to grab a cup of coffee. But, being in a generous mood, he fed a parking meter enough for whoever pulled into his soon-to-be-empty parking spot.
So, instead of costing him a penny, it cost him two.
In a time of strained city budgets, this community of 18,000 residents an hour west of Chicago is one of a handful still holding onto meters that accept pennies, nickels and dimes around its town square. A penny gets you 12 minutes, a nickel buys an hour and a dime is worth two hours.
Don't fret if bills or a credit card is all you have — sometimes people leave a few extra pennies stacked on the meters. And the guy whose job it is to write tickets when he spots expired meters? He's been known to feed them.
The City Council quadrupled the fine for parking tickets a few years ago. "The fines went from a quarter to a dollar," Mayor Ken Mundy said, adding out-of-towners often ask for a copy of the ticket as a keepsake.
While it seems like a scene straight out of "It's a Wonderful Life," there's purpose in the parking strategy.
Mundy and others are well aware that meters translate into big money — and sometimes scandal — in places like Chicago, where parking costs as much as $6.50 an hour and a ticket is $65. But unlike many other communities, where downtowns are littered with boarded-up storefronts, theirs is thriving. And they think the penny parking meters' message — that Sycamore is welcoming but not trying to gouge visitors — is one of the reasons why.
"The meters encourage people to come downtown," City Manager Brian Gregory said, which to him is more valuable than the "few thousand dollars" in revenue Sycamore would realize if it raised parking rates. Right now, he said, the city basically breaks even.
So, why charge at all? Mundy and Gregory say the meters do exactly what the city and business owners want: Encourage motorists to park and shop without lingering too long so someone else can do the same.
"Even though it's just a little money, it gives you a little more incentive to watch the time," Stolarski said.
Merchants love the meters. "We use it as a marketing tool on Facebook," Sycamore Antiques co-owner Ann Tucker said.
Shoppers do, too. "It keeps the quaintness of the town," said Kathy Tornberg, who planned on using the whole two hours her dime bought recently. "Don't tell them, but I'd be willing to pay a quarter for two hours."
People who follow parking trends are hard-pressed to find another community with anywhere near the 316 penny parking meters still operating in Sycamore.
"There is no other one because it serves no purpose," opined Larry Berman, a former New York City parking commissioner. "It is just amazing."
There are a dozen in Silverton, Oregon. Just seven remain in Somerville, New Jersey, which once had 1,100.
"I used to have one of the first ones (on display) in my office," Somerville's Clerk-Administrator Kevin Sluka said. "One day they took it for the parts."
In Sycamore, the penny meter's survival is also a tribute to parking enforcement officer Giovanni Serra's ability to fix them when they break down — and hunt down parts for those he can't. Mundy knows what that means.
"There's no doubt the supply is diminishing," he said. "We will eventually be out of the penny parking business."