For the record, Mary Graf doesn't get a sadistic thrill out of writing people parking tickets.
"I'm just doing my job," she said.
She doesn't get paid by how many tickets she writes. Nor does she hide behind a bush, waiting for someone's parking meter to expire, then jump out with a yellow envelope in hand.
People sometimes ask her if she'll pass up a meter that has just one minute left. The answer is "yes" - and she'll even pass by a meter that runs out while she's looking at it, as long as it was still valid when she first fixed her eyes on it.
"You don't backtrack," she said.
Graf is one of five full-time Lawrence parking control officers who patrol the downtown meters and lots.
Forgive Graf if she doesn't stop to debate once she's written a ticket. She's heard all kinds of excuses in her eight years on the job: "It just ran out a moment ago," "I was just coming back to feed it," "I'm from (insert Kansas town) and we don't have these there."
Graf said she simply can't go around voiding parking tickets once they've been electronically generated by the "tracker" that she carries slung over her shoulder - and she can't afford to get into arguments.
"I'd say the biggest challenge is not to respond," Graf said. "I tell people, 'Once it's on the car, it's yours.'"
Hot spots for tickets
Graf said sometimes people from out of town laugh when they see the amount they owe for a parking fine: $2. The amount rises to $10 if it's not paid in 10 days. By comparison, a parking violation in downtown Olathe costs $10 up front.
So where downtown are you most likely to get a ticket? The answer is the 900 block of Massachusetts Street.
The block contains the two meters that had more tickets issued at them than any other meters downtown in 2006: one, 16S, is in front of Ginger & Maryanne, 914 Mass., and near a US Bank ATM booth. The other, 22S, is in front of the Jazzhaus, 926 1/2 Mass.
Ginger & Maryanne employee Allie Atwood said she wasn't surprised to see the parking spot near the store at the top of the list.
"I see (parking control officers) walk by all the time," she said. "I'm going to avoid that spot."
According to figures from Municipal Court, the 900 block of Massachusetts Street had 9,553 tickets issued for meter violations in 2006. That's about 1,400 more than the next closest block, the 700 block of Massachusetts, which had 8,149 tickets issued.
It's anyone's guess as to why the 900 block appears to have more tickets than anywhere else.
Some downtown employees rack up hundreds of dollars worth of tickets.
Abby Reust, 24, an employee of Wild Man Vintage, estimates that she gets about $40 worth of tickets per month. When she comes to work, she feeds the meter once, then takes her chances as the hours go by.
"There's no place to park for free, and it's hard to go out there every hour when you're busy," she said. "It's kind of like an extra bill that I pay."
Reust said she's not interested in buying one of the city's $192 yearly passes for long-term parking lots.
"I'd rather just pay the tickets," she said.
Graf said she didn't have any special insight into why one area downtown might have more tickets than another. She and the other officers rotate their assignments throughout the day; on a recent Thursday morning, she was patrolling the entire downtown area south of Ninth Street by herself, while two other parking officers patrolled meters north of Ninth Street and another officer patrolled two-hour lots.
At noon, she was scheduled to switch with another officer and move north of Ninth Street.
"If we didn't move, it would get pretty boring," she said.
Every six months, Graf gets a new pair of New Balance walking shoes issued by the city. She estimated that she walks up to eight miles per day.
The job can be physically taxing, especially considering that Graf has rheumatoid arthritis. She takes a shot every other week to keep her joints from swelling and aching.
Graf, of Lawrence, has two grown children - a son and a daughter - and four grandchildren. Before working for the city, she owned a housekeeping business.
For every frustrated driver who gives her a dirty look, there are many others downtown who give a friendly wave or call out, "Hi, Mary." After all, Graf, who is originally from Eudora, grew up coming to Lawrence to "shoot the square" - cruise Massachusetts, Iowa, 23rd and Sixth streets - with her friends.
"What I love the most is seeing old friends," she said.
Getting off the hook
In a one-hour period Thursday morning, Graf wrote 30 tickets. She watches not only for expired meters but also for expired license tags. When she sees a violation, she records details about the car on her handheld tracker - color of the vehicle, model, tag number, body type - and makes sure to check whether it has a handicapped tag before printing a ticket.
"Uh-oh. They have an expired tag," Graf said as she wrote a ticket for a car that had last year's annual parking pass hanging on the rearview mirror. "They're also a habitual violator, so they know the ropes."
Habitual violators are people who get six tickets in a 30-day period. Under city code, the person gets a $50 fine in addition to the sixth ticket - but lately the city hasn't been writing the $50 tickets. A ruling last year in municipal court found such fines to be unconstitutional because they involve two tickets for the same offense.
"We've instructed the parking officers not to write tickets for habitual parking violators until we can get the ordinance off the books or fixed in some fashion," city prosecutor Jerry Little said.
As she stopped in front of Wheatfields Bakery about 10:30 a.m. and started writing a ticket on a sport utility vehicle, a man came running out and said he was just about to leave.
He got lucky; Graf hadn't printed the ticket yet.
"I would have been totally within my rights to finish that ticket," she said afterward.
Has Graf ever received a parking ticket in Lawrence?
"I'm afraid so," she admitted.
Parking ticket breakdown
Parking fines generate between $240,000 and $290,000 per year for the city, representing a sliver - roughly 0.2 percent - of the city's budget, which was $130.2 million last year.
Overall, 96,739 parking tickets were issued in 2006, up slightly from 95,690 in 2005.
Of those tickets:
- 38,946 were issued at meters along Massachusetts Street.
- 13,385 were issued on New Hampshire, Vermont and Kentucky streets.
- 12,585 were issued on cross streets such as Ninth and Eighth streets.
- 9,363 were issued in metered parking lots.
- 4,426 tickets were issued in parking garages.
- 18,034 tickets were issued in nonmetered parking lots, or no meter was listed on the ticket.