UPDATE: After this story ran Thursday, the city threw out the tickets, ending the 10-month ordeal. Rachel Sclarsky said Friday that when she called the number on the notice she’d received in the mail, a woman told her her balance was now $0. “Oh, I read about you yesterday. It was dismissed yesterday,” Schlarsky said the woman told her.

Even among hardened Philadelphians, whose parking-ticket disputes are second to none, Rachel Sclarsky’s story is a doozy.

Battling the Philadelphia Parking Authority is a rite of passage for many drivers here.

They’ll tell epic, backyard-barbecue tales that evoke the full range of human emotion. The slumped heads, the wry smiles. The only-in-Philly parables with no underlying moral lesson. Goliath wins, then takes your money. The end.

Still, Sclarsky and her 2008 Hyundai Elantra may be breaking ground in this particular subgenre of Philadelphia folklore.

The bogeyman is the same — the PPA and its Byzantine appeals process. But what began as a garden-variety misunderstanding over Sclarsky’s illegally parked car (more on that below) has morphed into a recurring bureaucratic nightmare that has now spanned all four seasons.

“This is insane,” she said.

A common refrain.

It began last September, when Sclarsky, a 29-year-old veterinarian, flew to Atlanta to watch the Eagles play the Falcons. She left her car in a legal spot on 15th Street between Kater and Bainbridge Streets. The Eagles lost. She flew home.

When Sclarsky went to retrieve her car, it was gone. It had been the beneficiary of a “courtesy tow,” a local euphemism for when the Philadelphia Police Department, the Parking Authority, or a towing company hired by the city is allowed to move a legally parked vehicle to another location to make room for a special event or construction.

Sometimes the city keeps a record of where it deposits the vehicles. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes the drop-off location is nearby. Sometimes it’s in a different neighborhood. Other cities, such as Chicago, post license plate numbers and new locations online. Philadelphia does not.

In Sclarsky’s case, her car had apparently been moved to make way for a jazz festival. When she couldn’t find her Elantra, she flagged down a police officer. He did some research and informed her that her car was at 15th and Washington Avenue.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I think it was parked illegally,” Sclarsky said.

Oh, but it was. In the middle of Washington Avenue. In the turning lane. With four tickets tucked under the wipers totaling more than $100.

Sclarsky figured that the city would dismiss them once she explained what had happened. That the city dumped her car there when she was actually more than 600 miles away in Atlanta.

Sclarsky found her Hyundai in the turning lane in the middle of Washington Avenue.
Rachel Sclarsky
Sclarsky found her Hyundai in the turning lane in the middle of Washington Avenue.

“I didn’t even park it there. The city parked it there,” Sclarsky reasoned. “So I shouldn’t be held accountable for the tickets.”

She figured wrong.

This week — 10 months later — Sclarsky received a letter stating that her October appeal had been denied and that she now owes the original amount, plus $65 in penalties for each ticket.

“It started as $120 worth of tickets. Now it’s $300 worth of tickets,” Sclarsky said. “None of it really makes sense.”

She called the phone number on the letter the PPA’s appeal bureau had sent her. The woman on the phone informed her that she had failed to make her case.

“She said I couldn’t prove that it was towed,” Sclarsky said. “I don’t know how to prove that.”

The letter also included a stern warning about what could happen if she doesn’t pay up: “Be sure you understand the consequences: Your vehicle can be towed or booted.”

Sclarsky received four parking tickets totaling more than $100 after her car was "courtesy" towed into an illegal space. They now want her to pay more than $300 after her initial appeal failed.
Rachel Sclarsky
Sclarsky received four parking tickets totaling more than $100 after her car was "courtesy" towed into an illegal space. They now want her to pay more than $300 after her initial appeal failed.

Sclarsky then called the local police district in an attempt to track down the officer who helped her locate her car back in September. She was told that they don’t have towing records going back that far, and, besides, that officer no longer works in that district.

A PPA spokesperson said Wednesday that he would look into the matter.

Sclarsky now has to continue fighting the tickets by mail. But she’s worried that in the meantime, the PPA could slap a boot on her car, or tow it again and impound it this time, as threatened.

“I was laughing about it at first,” Sclarsky said. “Now, I’m laugh-crying.”

To be continued.