Parking Meter Delusions

According to media reports, in last night’s debate between Melina Kennedy (no relation!) and Greg Ballard, the Mayor strongly defended his record. He cited crime reduction (a claim that can be considered true if you count only certain crimes, and ignore those annoying statistics about aggravated assaults and the like) and the privatization of parking meters.

Excuse me? Let’s deconstruct that. We are supposed to re-elect Ballard in gratitude for his decision to give away control of our parking infrastructure and some 60% of the fees we would otherwise earn for the next fifty years?

The ability to control meters may seem inconsequential, but it isn’t. Decisions about parking are a significant element in all sorts of development decisions; the ability to “bag” meters without penalty during downtown construction is a cost-control measure important to developers and others. It has been estimated that the city’s deal–which requires compensating ACS when more than a certain number of meters are bagged–added over a million dollars to the construction costs of the Cultural Trail.

When many of us protested the decision to contract away the lion’s share of parking revenues that would otherwise flow to the city, we were told that we needed the “expertise” of ACS–that the city couldn’t finance and manage its meters without the help of a sophisticated mega-corporation. (Evidently, the disastrous experiences of cities like Chicago that had entered into similar deals was considered irrelevant by Mayor Leadership.)

The bottom line, according to the Ballard Administration, was that it was necessary to trade a lot of city control and money for competent, experienced management.I thought that was a bad deal, but I assumed we would at least get the competent management. Evidently, I was naive.

Yesterday, in my Media and Policy class, a student raised the issue of how poorly local media had covered the administration’s privatization of the water company and parking meters. That led another student to complain that she had received a ticket despite having paid the fee–and was helpless to prove her payment since the meters don’t dispense receipts.

Her complaint opened a floodgate. Out of the 23 students in class, no fewer than 8 of them reported similar problems. Several had attempted to complain–complaints that, as one put it, were “blown off.” One student who had paid with a credit card was told the only way she could get a refund was to bring in her Visa bill. Another reported that her credit card was charged twice; when she tried to get the improper extra charge removed, the response was “how do we know you didn’t park twice?”

So, Mayor Ballard, let me understand this: I am supposed to vote to re-elect you, not despiteĀ the fact that you gave control of our parking and millions of our dollars to a company that is doing a crappy job, but because you did so?

Whatever it is you’re smoking, I’d like some.


  1. I still have a hard time understanding the logic behind privatization of basic government services. What we’re told is that private companies can provide these services more efficiently and with certain expertise. The implication is that in the long run, it will be cheaper for the private sector to provide the service. This “logic” fails to recognize, however, that the private sector has a very important element that must be included: the profit margin. Governments don’t need to operate and “make money.” Private businesses do. Any purported savings are going to be offset (in whole or in part) by the need to make a profit. Maybe government could develop the expertise and efficiency and not have to outsource?

    Maybe I’m just naive.

  2. The parking meter deal is actually 70% for ACS, not 60%. Once it reaches a certain threshold of monthly revenue, then it goes to 60-40 in favor of the city. But that is only for the revenue above the threshold. More importantly though they indexed the threshold to the CPI so it is unlikely to ever be reached since the rate increases will also be indexed to the CPI after the initial two increases, the last being to $1.50 an hour after the start of the year. The levels are set so high that we’re far under the 60-40 split now.
    The issues your students raise are made worse by the loss of control over this city asset. If Ballard is bragging about the parking meter privatization, he’s pretty clueless about the politics of the issue.

  3. Thanks for the contract detail, Paul. I absolutely agree with you that Ballard is clueless–and not just about the parking deal.

  4. My thoughts exactly! Oh! How I would love a law that says any business over a certain amount, or beyond a certain number of years must be on a voter referendum instead of voted on by the politicians bought and paid for by the very companies getting the city’s business….

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