July-August 2011

Don’t Hate the Meter Man

Milton Bonilla is a nice guy, really. But let your parking meter expire and he'll have just the ticket.

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This is an old story. You put a quarter into the meter because the errand you are running will only take a minute. You pop into the post office/the bank/the dry cleaner. There is a line. You take your place in the line. You wait, glancing uneasily at the clock.

Task completed, you hustle back to the parking lot. And there it is—the telltale bright yellow envelope tucked under the windshield wiper.

How is it possible? You look for the person who did this to you. There is no one around, no little white car with the county seal  emblazoned on the side. You rack your brain in wonderment: What sort of individual knows the exact moment your meter is about to expire? Who has this superhuman ability to appear out of nowhere, issue the ticket in the nick of time, and then disappear into thin air?

You could ask Milton Bonilla—if you could find him. Don’t expect much. If there are trade secrets or special tricks involved, he’s not telling. “I just keep moving,” he says. “That’s the way I am.”

Bonilla is a parking enforcement officer, a member of the small army of about 20 uniformed men and women who patrol the streets and public lots of Montgomery County, documenting violations of Chapter 31 of the county code. He’s the guy who slips the envelopes under your wipers. He carries them in a neat stack in his back pocket.

The occasional parking ticket is a fact of life in Bethesda, the almost inevitable outcome of an unfortunate mix of minor miscalculations, oversights, errors of judgment and timing.

For those on the receiving end, the coping process proceeds along a predictable course, starting with denial and disbelief (Oh, no, not again!). Anger is next—rage usually, unadulterated, helpless and pure. Followed by bargaining, or maybe begging (If only it were possible to rewind the clock, put in two quarters instead of one.). Then depression (How could I have been so stupid? Why does this always happen to me?). And finally, acceptance. You take out your checkbook or go online to montgomerycountymd.gov and kiss $45 goodbye. That is, if you pay within 15 days. After 15, a $25 late fee is added. After 15 more, another $25 is tacked on, for a total of $95, thank you very much.

Though this may be one of those situations in which it is better to give than to receive, it’s not easy being the bearer of bad tidings—the guy everyone loves to hate. But “it’s a job,” Bonilla says. “It is a way to make a living.”

Parking enforcement is also a public service, and those who do it are public servants. But Montgomery County parking enforcement officers are not county employees. They work for Serco Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of the Serco Group. Described by London’s Guardian newspaper as “probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of,” the United Kingdom based multinational specializes in the private management of public services around the world. Parking management is a mere sliver of the group’s global pie. Serco has its stamp on everything from the U.K.’s Ballistic Missile Early Warning System to the Dubai Metro, from detention centers to air traffic control to drivers’ licensing services.

And it’s protective of its people. Serco agreed to accommodate an interview with Bonilla, provided Serco and county representatives came along.

We meet at the entrance to Garage 57, the four-story facility spanning Bethesda Avenue and Elm Street, on a sunny but chill spring morning. Bonilla is shivering in his neatly pressed, white short-sleeved shirt and navy trousers. He wears a badge that says “Enforcement Patrol Montgomery County” and comfortable shoes—black loafers, buffed and clean but showing a bit of wear. He estimates he walks five to six miles per shift.

His day starts with a commute from Germantown in his 2002 Toyota. He reports to work at 7 a.m. at the parking enforcement offices in downtown Silver Spring. He works an eight-hour shift, with two 15-minute breaks plus a half hour for lunch.

Bonilla, who is 32, is one of the longer serving members of the county’s parking enforcement corps. A “seasoned and exemplary PEO on Team Serco,” as the company’s letter of introduction puts it, he has been issuing parking tickets since 2002, the year he emigrated from El Salvador.

His medium height and build, along with a tendency to vanish the moment your attention wanders, invite comparison with another profession’s best practitioners, who are as unobtrusive as they are observant, fast on their feet and unflappable when confronted in the performance of their daily duties. If he ever considered moving on from parking enforcement, Bonilla would be a perfect spy.

He is unfazed by the little army following him. He is cooperative and pleasant, but businesslike, entirely focused on his work.

His route today is the central Bethesda business district, bounded by Woodmont and Arlington, Bethesda and Elm. It falls within the Bethesda Parking Lot District, a gold mine of 5,350 parking meters. There are four districts in Montgomery County, and Bonilla has walked every one.

From the entrance to Garage 57 we proceed to the fourth floor and—bingo!—the first car he sees, a gun-metal gray VW Jetta parked directly across from the elevator, looks promising. The meter is blinking. Bonilla gets to work.

Lovely Rita, the meter maid of Beatles fame, “filling in a ticket in her little white book,” is no more. The basic tool of today’s parking enforcement officer is the AutoCITE, a device that looks like an outsized TV remote with a miniature LCD screen. Using the AutoCITE, Bonilla is able to check whether the driver of the vehicle paid the meter by cell phone—fast becoming one of the more popular ways to feed meters all over the county.

In this case, the driver has not paid. Bonilla punches in the meter number and the license plate number and description of the vehicle. He checks one more time in case the meter was paid remotely while he was writing up the ticket. The answer is no. He gives a sympathetic shake of the head, prints the ticket, places it in the yellow envelope, slides the envelope under the passenger side windshield wiper and moves on.