A number of Knox County leaders suspect government workers are cheating a system that allows them to obtain and keep handicapped hangtags so they can park for free inside the downtown City County Building.
Now local leaders want to discourage that by changing state law to allow them to charge disabled employees for parking privileges.
They say the move would add dollars – at least $43,000 annually – to the coffers and prevent some workers from jumping ahead of employees who park elsewhere and have waited years for the coveted garage spots.
It also would be more equitable, overall, for the employees who work in the City County Building, the headquarters of local governmental operations.
"Personally, I hate that accessible parking is free," said Knoxville Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator Stephanie Cook, whose job is to accommodate city employees and residents with disabilities. "Professionally, it's not so great either because it's hard to provide enough parking to accommodate those who need it."
Cook, a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair and has her own marked parking spot, added: "I have an issue with 'free' equaling 'special,' and advocates for people with disabilities want equal treatment."
Officials for years have wrestled with costs tied to the 868-space parking garage in the City County Building, and how to make them fairer across the board.
Roughly five years ago, a committee comprised of city and county officials concluded that the fee - $30 a month at the time – fell way below market rates. The panel suggested increasing it to $60 a month over several years, capping it this past January.
Officials, though, balked in late 2012, saying they didn't want to increase it anymore from the current $47.50 monthly fee, since county employees had gone years without a pay raise.
About the same time parking prices began increasing, officials noticed "a significant jump" in the number of county employees applying for disability hangtags, said Dale Smith, executive director of the Public Building Authority, the quasi-governmental agency that manages the parking garage for the city and county.
Smith said at one point he sent a memo to county managers that listed their employees who had a tag, and "that's when we got some pretty strong reactions in a few cases from department heads who clearly knew that that person was not physically disabled."
However, there's nothing officials can do about it, once a doctor approves the required paperwork.
"Nobody was trying to play doctor," said Smith. "Neither I, nor the mayors, nor the finance directors are trying to outguess physicians."
But, the number of county employees who request hang tags, coupled with anecdotal evidence of people seeking tags for illegitimate disabilities, leads him to believe that non-disabled employees are still able to come up with the necessary paperwork.
Part of the solution, county officials believe, would be to charge everyone including disabled drivers to park.
However, Tennessee is one of the few states that won't allow local governments to charge disabled drivers a fee to park on any street, metered parking space or lot municipally owned or leased.
'GAMING' THE SYSTEM
The number of accessible parking permits have dipped and jumped during the past decade, but officials say county employees have always accounted for more than their city counterparts.
And the disparity has been pretty significant.
Right now, the county has 64 employees with disability tags, and the city has 12.
But, from 2010 through 2012, for example, about 90 of the county's 455 full-time county employees who use the garage had permits, or roughly 20 percent, according to Knox County ADA Coordinator Pat Carson. Yet only seven of the city's 160 full-time employees, or about 4.5 percent, had permits.
Roughly 20 percent of the population nationwide has a disability, according to the ADA, although the disability might not be immediately apparent.
"It is a system, unfortunately, that is very, very easy to game," Smith said.
For example, drivers need to complete a form and get a physician to OK it before they get a tag. But, Smith said, some doctors allow approve permits for matters not recognized as ADA disabilities, like pregnancy. Doctors also have let the "temporary" or "permanent" box go unchecked – allowing employees to complete it.
"Once a physician signs that, everybody else down the chain from the employer to the owner of the garage, like we are, has to comply," Smith said. "You have no choice. There's no way to appeal it. There's no way to have it reviewed in any formal way."
When asked about the disparity between the city and county permits, Smith said city workers also need approval from Cook, and "I think (that) possibly people are more embarrassed to come to her and claim that they're more impaired than the person on the county's side."
"That's the only thing I can attribute to it because there will always be equal motivations to save money, and to get into the garage," Smith said, noting that Cook is permanently in a wheelchair, while her counterpart in county government is not disabled.
Cook said free parking "could incentivize a person to maybe seek a hangtag or plate that they may or may not need," but stressed that she's "not a medical professional."
"I don't get to judge that," she said.
Recently, though, the numbers have dropped, something officials attribute to the Knox County Commissioner's unwillingness to raise the rates. They're still concerned, though, that some people are taking advantage of the system.
"As we look at our numbers today I think it's not being abused as much as it was," said county Finance Director Chris Caldwell.
LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS
Officials now have a few options: Increase the rates for most employees to account for lost revenue, or charge everyone to park.
"We're not picking on these individuals," Caldwell said. "We just want to make sure it's applied fair across the board."
He said the administration has reached out to state leaders, including State Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, to help change the law.
Haynes, the chairman of the local Legislative delegation, said he wants to talk with organizations that work with the disabled, but said state lawmakers will probably discuss whether to give local governments the option to charge those who park in the accessible spots.
"This was an idea that (the county administration) approached and they may need some leeway in the law to be able to do that, but I think ultimately the City County Building should be run by the City of Knoxville and the county, and they should be able to make these decisions for themselves. And I think they recognize that as well," he said.
The Tennessee General Assembly meets again in January.