County discusses downtown parking

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 14, 2003

It may be a problem without a solution or, at least, a solution that solves everyone's individual woes.

Mike Robbins, owner of Robbins Furniture and Design Gallery, brought his campaign to solve Austin's downtown parking problem to Tuesday's Mower County Board of Commissioners' meeting. On Monday he had lobbied before the Austin City Council for resolution to the problem.

"Since the retirement of the parking enforcement officer, the problems have become horrendous," Robbins said. "County employees who used to leave work to move their cars every two hours aren't doing that anymore. My customers can't get near the store.

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"I think you should talk to the supervisors and department heads and have county employees park off-site in city lots. This is causing a problem not only for Robbins Furniture, but for every business in downtown Austin."

Pat Waletzki retired from the Austin Police Department two weeks ago.

The Mower County government center employees -- the county is the largest single employer in downtown Austin -- were granted permission to leave their jobs and the building to move their cars before Waletzki gave them a $5 overtime parking ticket. They accomplished this by using their 15-minute break period in the morning and afternoon as well as mid-day lunch hour, a practice which their union contract allowed, said Garry Ellingson, 5th District county commissioner and chairman of the board.

More public parking lots were created in the vicinity of the government center (courthouse), but county employees still preferred parking along the streets adjacent to the building.

Robbins' own solution was that the city and county build a multi-story parking ramp.

"Cities smaller than Austin have parking ramps," Robbins said.

Otherwise, Robbins said the county would have to keep its employees in the building, during regular working hours in a bit of reverse-psychology. After receiving overtime parking tickets, they would adjust to using the city lots with longer periods of free parking.

Robbins also told the commissioners he had suggested the city change parking from two to one-hour only in the downtown area.

"It's become an ongoing problem over the years," Robbins said, "and we're trying to grow our business and we're just not able to do that."

Ray Tucker, 2nd District county commissioner, asked if the city was replacing Waletzki. He was told the Austin Police Department's community service officers are chalking cars on a time-available basis from their other duties.

Robbins said, "Waletzki's $40,000 a year salary never matched the revenues she was earning the city." Police Chief Paul M. Philipp confirmed that statement after the meeting.

"Our employees do this on their breaks and there's very little we can do except encourage them to use the lots," said David Hillier, 3rd District.

Craig Oscarson, county coordinator, said, "The problem is that as a society we are spoiled. We don't want to walk to a lot. We want to step outside and into our vehicles. Everybody is spoiled. Downtown parking is a problem and county employees, all of us at one time or another are part of it, but the labor law does not allow us to restrict county employees to their workspace on their breaks."

Donna Robbins, widow of store owner Lee Robbins and mother of Mike Robbins, told the county board members, changing the parking to only one hour won't work. It's just not enough time to buy furniture."

Oscarson told all anticipated state budget shortfalls impact on local spending make building a parking ramp impossible.

David Hillier, 3rd District, suggested the city add more four-hour parking spots in the downtown plaza lot.

Dick Lang, 4th District, said he liked that idea, too.

Ellingson, the chairman of the county board, said changing the city's parking limit to only one hour is a "short term fix" if at all.

"That's because our employees can only leave the building every two hours," he said.

Also, Ellingson said he had complaints from elderly citizens, who attempted to visit the government center at tax time and could not find parking close by the building.

Finally, he reminded everyone that "Some of these county employees spend an awful lot of money in the city."

Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at