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Parking problems

Downtown parking shortage leads to abuse of disabled parking placards

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

We've all seen it: the seemingly able-bodied teenager or delivery truck driver parking in a handicapped parking spot. For as long as there has been disabled parking, people have abused it.

But these days, the abuse goes further. People are parking at meters free with forged, counterfeit, borrowed or stolen hangtags. They're buying bogus placards at flea markets.

The Travis County Precinct 5 constable's office, whose territory includes downtown, found in six months of spot-checking disabled hangtags downtown that about 65 percent are being used illegally. And that fraud is costing the city tens of thousands of dollars in parking meter money each year, Constable Bruce Elfant said.

Now Elfant is asking the City of Austin to pony up the money for an extra deputy to crack down on parking fraud; that would cost about $45,000.

Most people who abuse disabled parking are running into the grocery store or gas station, planning to be in and out in a few minutes. But government employees — who are always scrounging for downtown parking spots — also abuse disabled placards, Elfant said. The county attorney's office is prosecuting a county employee recently caught with her third illegal hangtag.

"When it costs $100 to $200 a month to park, people are going to resort to different tactics," Elfant said. "I wish they'd just take the bus."

Elfant drives down the 200 block of East 10th Street, picking out the cars with accessible parking hangtags dangling from their rearview mirrors.

"There's one, there's one, there's one," he says.

Seven cars in a row, all outside one state building.

It's been 16 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act required businesses and governments to make accommodations for people with disabilities. The Texas Legislature also required law enforcement to crack down on disabled parking violations, Elfant said.

In 1995, the Precinct 5 constable's office established an accessible parking enforcement program using citizen volunteers, Elfant said. Today, the county program has 30 volunteers.

But those volunteers can ticket only cars parked in accessible spaces without a hangtag or a marked license plate. Because they are not peace officers and do not have the right to ask a person for identification, volunteers can't take action if they suspect someone is illegally using a placard that belongs to someone else. They can't seize a forged or altered hangtag.

On one hand, their limited power is no problem, Elfant said. Of the 578 tickets written October through March — a full six months — 80 percent were for cars parked without hangtags or plates.

But the number of tickets for placard fraud is increasing, Elfant said. In November, the county hired its first deputy devoted solely to disabled parking violations. As of the end of March, the deputy had written 284 tickets, 50 of which were for placard fraud.

And there would be a lot more if there were more deputies, Elfant said.

Catching people with fake placards takes time. The deputy must wait for the driver to return to the car and then check the hangtag number against the person's driver's license.

The city's parking enforcement officials can't investigate potential fraud cases, either, because they are not peace officers. Other law enforcement offices don't devote deputies to parking abuse, Elfant said.

"It's very labor-intensive, and most people are not going to use law enforcement resources just to stare at handicapped parking," he said.

Elfant is hoping the Austin City Council will put up the money for another deputy devoted to disabled parking enforcement.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell said he supports the idea and plans to take it to the council.

"I definitely think the city ought to be correcting that abuse," he said. "We don't want to look at it primarily as a money issue. . . . But it's a considerable loss of revenue. People are taking up a spot that would otherwise be used by people who would be feeding quarters into the meter."

Exactly how much money is being lost remains unclear.

"It's basically theft from the city," Elfant said.

Downtown parking is a real pain for Gene Rodgers.

The 50-year-old Austin man, who has quadriplegia and uses a wheelchair, usually takes the bus to get around town. But whenever he catches a ride with friends, they often have trouble finding an open accessible parking space.

What's worse, he says, is that he suspects many people using those spots don't really need them.

"You see people get out of their cars like they're an Olympic gymnast, doing back flips in the parking lot," Rodgers said. "It's just not right."

The most rampant abuse seems clustered around the downtown government buildings, where parking is scarce and expensive, Elfant said. Take a drive near the William P. Hobby Building on Guadalupe Street or the secretary of state's office on East 10th Street. The disabled placards are everywhere.

"You know, some of these are legit," Elfant said. "Disabled people need to go to government buildings and do their business, too."

The others, the lawbreakers, get their parking placards from a variety of sources, Elfant said.

Many take legitimate hangtags from friends or relatives, often without their knowledge. Some people break into cars for them. Some take legal tags and illegally change the expiration date.

Others buy counterfeit hangtags at flea markets, at yard sales or over the Internet.

Elfant has not yet targeted the flea markets. But occasionally, he recruits other deputies to perform rush-hour stings of hangtag abuse.

On Thursday, four deputies prowled around downtown, questioning people with disabled placards. Within an hour, they had ticketed three people. One young man was using the placard of a dead 88-year-old woman.

A fourth violator spotted deputies, jumped into her car, drove away and, a few blocks away, handed her hangtag to someone walking down the street.

"It looked like a drug deal going down," Elfant said. " 'Hey, man, you want a hangtag?' "; 912-2506

Disabled parking facts

•People with a valid disabled parking hangtag may park free at city meters.

•It is illegal to use another person's hangtag unless the tag holder is in the vehicle.

•It is illegal to park in front of curb cuts or on diagonal striping next to handicapped spots. Those stripes provide room for disabled people to get themselves and their equipment out of their cars.

•Blue placards are issued for people who cannot walk without an assistive device or must use a wheelchair.

•Red placards are issued for any other type of disability.

•People with permanent disabilities may get 'disabled person' license plates.

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