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Archive for Wednesday, May 13, 1998

VANDAL EMPTIES PARKING METERS

May 13, 1998

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Parking meter money, which usually goes to fund city improvement projects, has been pilfered from more than 100 meters in the past month.

The city's parking meter coffers have been lacking in the past month, but it's not because of an increase in scofflaws.

Someone has stolen coins from more than 100 of the machines in downtown Lawrence in the past month.

The total loss could be about $5,000, but Lawrence police won't have an estimate until the end of the month when parking meter revenues can be compared to past months. Even then, an exact amount won't be known because there's no way to know how much money was in the meters when they were cleaned out.

``It's difficult to say,'' said Sgt. Douglas Bell, who oversees the city staff that empties the coins. ``I've never seen one completely full.''

According to three police reports made public Tuesday morning, the burglarized parking meters are in the 100 block of North Park, and the 700 and 800 blocks of Massachusetts. Sgt. George Wheeler wouldn't say how many meters were emptied, but that it was more than 100 and less than 200.

There are 10 single-head meters and 10 double-head meters in the 100 block of North Park, 74 single-head meters in the 700 block of Massachusetts and 72 single-head meters in the 800 block of Massachusetts.

The average daily haul on the meters isn't known because money from each meter is dumped into a collection bag and later taken to a bank, where it is added to a city account. Some meters make more money because of heavier use. For example, the meters on Massachusetts Street collect more money than the ones on North Park.

``We have some that don't pull in $2 each week,'' Bell said.

The parking meters are made by Duncan Industries, Harrison, Ark. Ann Murray, a sales representative for the company, said maximum capacity of the meters is generally $30. Based on those figures, 150 meters burglarized while at full capacity would result in a theft of $4,500. According to police, however, it's unlikely any of the meters had $30 in them.

Bell said collection times have been stepped up since the thefts were discovered between April 18 and May 1, and local banks have been told to look for customers wanting to exchange large quantities of change for cash.

``We're getting the money out of the meters before it builds up,'' Wheeler said. ``We're doing some other stuff, but I'm not at liberty to discuss that.''

While parking meters are periodically stolen or vandalized, theft of just the coins inside is rare because a key is needed.

``It's pretty uncommon, and that's why we noticed it fairly quickly,'' Bell said. ``We haven't had any problems in the past couple of weeks.''

Police aren't missing a key to the parking meters. Although all the meters that were targeted have the same lock, meters in different areas have different keys. Murray said there are duplicate keys to parking meters across the country, but the company tries to ensure meters in the same states and adjoining states don't have the same combinations.

``Someone in Pennsylvania or New York might have the same combinations as the ones in a small town in Kansas, but finding that is like finding a needle in a haystack,'' Murray said.

``It would be very unlikely,'' she said. ``They would have to have every one of our keys. We keep records of the different combinations secret. Nobody gets those records, not even the president of the United States.''

Bell said the origin of the key isn't known.

There are 1,500 meters in Lawrence. Money collected in meters is poured back into the parking system for lot upgrades, ongoing maintenance, cleaning efforts and enforcement issues, City Manager Mike Wildgen said.

City employees emptied $196,000 worth of coins from meters in 1996.

Wildgen said police were continuing their investigation into the thefts.

"It's probably not a huge amount of money, but over time it could be," Wildgen said.

Anyone with information about the thefts is encouraged to call Crime Stoppers at 843-TIPS (8477). Crime Stoppers will pay up to $1,000 for information leading to an arrest and callers remain anonymous. Crime Stoppers does not subscribe to Caller ID.

-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is ckoger@ljworld.com.

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