Matt Salzwedel was on a date when he parked his new car in a downtown Minneapolis parking lot. Nikki Daly was running an errand. Jeff Hulme was meeting friends at a nearby bar.

They all parked in the same lot at the corner of Washington and 1st avenues. And they all insist they put $8 cash in an envelope and dropped it into the pay box. But when they returned, their cars had been towed and they had no way of proving that they'd paid.

The lot's owner, John Rimarcik, is skeptical. In the decades he's been a downtown property owner, he said he's heard every excuse for why drivers shouldn't have been towed, including accusations that his employees have pocketed the cash payments. About twice a year, he estimated, cars are mistakenly towed. But he vehemently denies that anyone is improperly taking his customers' money.

"They just think they won't get caught," Rimarcik said of the drivers.

More than a dozen drivers who contacted Whistleblower said parking lots should be required to provide receipts because the current paybox system is unfair to consumers.

"The thing about those lots is there's no proof that I paid or didn't pay," said Daly, a kindergarten teacher from St. Louis Park. "There's no reason that you should leave the money in the box and hope for the best."

Minneapolis parking regulators said they've heard similar complaints over the years and have even sat outside several lots to observe employees, but they didn't see anything suspicious. A more common sight was people who didn't pay.

"I think these lots are on the up-and-up," said Rich Tuffs, the city's parking lot inspector. Tuffs acknowledged that there's not much customers can do to prove they paid.

Grant Wilson, Minneapolis' business licensing manager, said city officials have discussed whether the 137 licensed class A parking lots should be obligated to provide proof of payment, but the issue hasn't gone anywhere.

"It's very expensive to go electronic," Wilson said. "The lot owners complain about it."

So far this year, 93 cars have been towed from the lot at 101 Washington Av. N., according to an analysis of city towing records. The lot has the second highest number of tows this year, behind U-Tech Parking on the University of Minnesota campus, which has towed 104 cars and employs an on-site attendant. Rimarcik's four other lots generated 44 tows, city records show.

Drivers demand answers

Salzwedel, a lawyer who parked in the lot on Washington Avenue in May 2009, said he was determined to get back the $250 towing fee plus compensation for damage to his car.

"Why would I ever not put $8 in and risk having my 2008 Infiniti be towed on a date?" Salzwedel said.

Salzwedel went to conciliation court and sued the tow company, Wrecker Services, and the company that owns the lot, HTH LLC. Salzwedel recovered $415 from Wrecker Services, but he thinks most people don't get their towing fees back because they don't have the time and money to litigate.

"If they don't want to have problems, then just install a machine that gives people a receipt," Salzwedel said. "Get into the 21st century."

Another driver filed a complaint with the state attorney general's office, but she didn't get her money back.

Rimarcik, a longtime restaurateur, owns five parking lots in downtown Minneapolis under the names Red Spot Parking, HTH and Tully Lot.

"There's nothing in it for us to have anyone towed, except an aggravation," Rimarcik said.

Chesica Brown parked in one of Rimarcik's lots last winter. She said she paid her $8 but her car was towed anyway. She decided it wasn't worth paying the towing fee to reclaim the junker she had bought for a couple hundred dollars. But she was told she couldn't get back her personal belongings -- including an iPhone, a car seat and mannequin heads for beauty school -- unless she paid her bill at Wrecker Services.

Brown decided to walk away from her property. In fact, she thought the ordeal was over until she was served with a lawsuit from the tow company last November. Wrecker Services wanted $1,481.38 from Brown.

"I was infuriated," Brown said.

In a legal filing, Wrecker Services said the firm is "under no obligation to surrender personal belongings until the complete bill is paid." The lawsuit is pending. A Wrecker Services employee told Whistleblower that the tow company doesn't play any role in deciding which cars are towed.

Rimarcik said he agrees that an electronic payment system would be ideal. But he said it's not economically feasible to shell out about $40,000 for a machine when none of his lots is profitable.

"We don't like to have to fight and argue with people, but if we don't, the integrity of the business is gone," Rimarcik said. "We lose the idea that people really have to pay to park." • 612-673-4628