American-Statesman - Government Spending: Parking Enforcement

Volunteers, officers hunt for disability parking violators
Posted: 4:55 p.m. Sunday, July 14, 2013

BY FARZAD MASHHOOD - AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Two women, both in wheelchairs, circled the cars parked in a dozen or so spaces for people with disabilities in the vast parking lot.

It was 100 degrees under the early afternoon sun, and Julia Maloukis’ service dog, Shiloh, was having a hard time trotting on the asphalt as Maloukis looked for cars parked illegally in such spaces. “I’m not a cop. I’m here to help people,” Maloukis said, explaining that she takes no pleasure in ticketing cars without a disability placard or license plate. Maloukis is among the 35 volunteers from around Travis County who are trained annually and armed with a ticket book to fine those parked illegally in a spot for people with disabilities. Though most of the volunteers do not have a disability, almost all have a personal connection with someone who does, said Tanya Winters, the Travis County Precinct 5 constable’s education and outreach coordinator.

Since October 2010, officers and volunteers have ticketed 3,785 cars parked illegally in spaces for people with disabilities, with officers writing about three-quarters of those citations. They also seized 501 bogus or ill-gotten disability placards. Seizures are up during this budget year: The office has taken 242 placards since October, compared with 142 and 117 in the past two budget years.

The Precinct 5 constable’s office has focused on ticketing such scofflaws since 1995. In addition to the volunteer program, the office has a deputy dedicated to disability parking enforcement. There are five constables in Travis County, and they head small law enforcement offices in charge of serving warrants and other duties.

Maloukis and Winters didn’t write any citations on their Friday patrol; everyone in the Hancock Center parking lot seemed to know not to park in the accessible spaces or the marked walkways next to them. Still, Constable Carlos Lopez is looking for more ways to spread the word.

“We’re hoping to get some money for planning some outreach, whether it be a (public service announcement), more brochures or something else,” he said.

Last week, county commissioners approved a request from Lopez’s office to apply for a $37,000 grant from the nonprofit Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities to plan an awareness campaign. If the constable’s office wins the grant, the county will match it with about $12,000 worth of staff time.

“We’ve been enforcing for almost 20 years, but now we could do more outreach,” Winters said.

The grant funding would pay for staffers and possibly a consultant to develop a marketing campaign to persuade people not to park in spots for people with disabilities.

Though state law allows the volunteers to ticket illegal parkers, a $520 fine, only an officer can seize bogus placards or check whether a person driving a car with a disability placard is registered to have it. Officer Laurence Caldwell said he has found four placards this year that were registered to dead people; relatives were using the placards.

The volunteers “are doing a swell job of writing tickets and educating people,” Lopez said. But parking in spots for people with disabilities is happening too much and no other law enforcement agency in Travis County is actively pursuing it, he said.

Lopez and his staff showed some of the bogus placards they’ve found over the years. Many are expired tags that people try to doctor with new dates. Others are cruder, such as a piece of plastic glass with blue paper and a blue construction paper hanger with a disability logo drawn on with correction fluid and a date written in black marker.

“That’s my favorite,” Lopez said.

The ranks of the volunteers are expanding this year, Winters said. Five people signed up for training, and she is working on recruiting 10 security officers at hospitals to meet the goal of having 50 volunteers by the end of the year.