Even in the cold, heat is on illegal parkers

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By Mitch Smith, NewsNetNebraska

The first half-mile is straight into the wind.

Finally, a left turn onto O Street brings a reprieve from the cold.

The bars and sandwich shops provide a windblock for Matt Truhlar as he approaches the first line of parking meters.

He takes a quick glance at every vehicle’s license plate. An expired set of tags equals a hefty fine. Then he looks toward the meters. A blinking red light leads to a more modest $10 ticket.

His first victim is the person who dared to park a shiny black Range Rover in front of Walgreen’s with registration that expired in October.

Truhlar punches the license plate number into his handheld computer. Then the printer stuck to his left pant pocket spits out a receipt bearing $100 worth of bad news.

Onto the next car.

* * * * *

Never has there been a worse time to park illegally in downtown Lincoln.

For years, Lincoln police handled the city’s parking duties. But citing slumping ticket revenues and poor customer service, the City Council disbanded the police parking enforcement team in September 2010.

Truhlar was one of three meter inspectors, dubbed “parking ambassadors,” hired by Park & Go to replace the police employees, who weren’t sworn officers.

In August, the new staff handed out 6,067 parking tickets, the highest total since at least September 2007, the last month for which data was readily available.The tickets were a 771 percent increase over the 696 tickets the police employees handed out during their last month on the job in August 2010.

The police employees also had other responsibilities, like helping direct traffic after crashes.

But beyond the increase in tickets is a new parking culture.

The SUVs with “Lincoln Police” emblazoned on the side and amber light bars were repainted with a friendlier design.

The look-alike police uniforms were swapped out for blue polo shirts or, for chilly days like this one, silver parkas.

And with the switch, complaints of ticket writers waiting at a meter until it expires or walking away from upset parkers largely disappeared.

“It’s a customer-service attitude,” said Tony Bisesi, the city’s parking administrator.

* * * * *

It’s cold outside.

Not the type of cold that sends you into a shiver between your driveway and your front door, but the type of cold that starts to get to you after three hours of a nippy late-autumn wind gnawing at your ears.

So Truhlar bundles up in a gray ski jacket and Huskers beanie. Rain, snow, sleet or sun, he has work to do.

No one would confuse the bearded parking employee for a cop. Save for the small logo on his jacket and mobile ticket-producing factory strapped to his body, he looks like any other 20-something walking through downtown Lincoln this Friday.

But at about every fifth car, he pauses, pulls out the mini computer screen and uses a small pen to write a parking ticket.

He moves fast, ignoring the occasional driver who honks when they spot him on the sidewalk.

In a two-hour stroll throughout his entire beat – stretching roughly from O to K streets from 10th to 20th streets — he encounters only two car owners. Neither have harsh words to share.

Since Truhlar started in September, Besesi’s parking ambassadors have doled out more than 5,000 parking tickets in seven different months. In the three years before that, ticket numbers never exceeded 4,800 for a single month.

Truhlar, a soft-spoken man who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Superior with a business degree and followed his then-wife to Lincoln, said the customer service goal is at the heart of his job.

He said he has no ticket quota or goal for the day other than to walk through his territory and ticket whoever is parked illegally.

He could ticket cars multiple times a day or go after parkers who plug their meters. Both are violations, but Park & Go chooses not to enforce them.

But when he caught an old red SUV with an expired meter on the northern edge of downtown last Friday, Truhlar did what he always does. He punched in the information, printed out a ticket and stuck it in an envelope.

Then a couple emerged from a nearby building and unlocked the car door.

They made no attempt to dispute the ticket, but Truhlar asked if the car was there’s.

The man said yes, then Truhlar volunteered to rescind the ticket.

“Are you sure?” the man asked.

“Yeah,” Truhlar said, typing a new code into his computer and reaching out to shake the hand of the world’s happiest illegal parker.

Why take back the ticket?

“It probably just ran out,” Truhlar said.