Mayor Ballard’s proposal to privatize the city’s parking continues to spark bipartisan concern. Last week, the Sunday Star ran a “point-counterpoint” between Deputy Mayor Michael Huber, the proposal’s architect, and Aaron Renn, a respected urban affairs expert who has criticized it. Star editor Dennis Ryerson noted that many open questions should be answered before the City-County Council makes a final decision.
What are those questions?
Why would any city turn over an important part of its infrastructure to any private company for fifty years? Even if the deal were less one-sided fiscally, decisions about where to place meters, how to price them, what lengths of time to allow and so on have an enormous impact on local businesses and residential neighborhoods. They are decisions requiring flexibility in the face of changing circumstances; they are most definitely not decisions that should be held hostage to contracting provisions aimed at protecting a vendor’s profits.
Why would we enter into a contract that will add significantly to the costs of downtown development? Indianapolis has worked hard to encourage construction of hotels, retail establishments and residential units in our urban core. Often, that construction interrupts adjacent parking. Now, the city can choose to ignore that loss of parking revenue, or to charge the developer, based upon the City’s best interests. This contract requires that ACS be paid whenever such interruptions occur. It has been estimated that such a provision would have added over two million dollars to the cost of the current legs of the Cultural Trail.
Why ACS? Much has been written about the problems with Chicago’s parking privatization, but far less about ACS’ track record in places like Washington, D.C., where an audit documented mismanagement, overcharging, over-counting of meters, and the issuance of bogus tickets (ACS gets all the revenue for tickets). Washington lost $8,823,447 in revenue and experienced a twenty-fold increase in complaints from the public. And it wasn’t just D.C. Police officers in Edmonton, Canada, were tried for accepting bribes from ACS, and a few years ago, the company’s CEO and CFO stepped down after admitting to $51 million in stock fraud. Why enter into such a disadvantageous deal for so long a term with a company having so troubling a track record?
One of the problems with privatization in general, as we learned during the Goldsmith administration, is that it leads to speculation about cronyism and political back-scratching. In this case, the Mayor’s personal advisor is a registered lobbyist for ACS through Barnes and Thornburg, the same law firm that employs the President of the City-County Council. Whatever the facts of the situation, those relationships raise an appearance of impropriety.
Finally, why not simply retain control of our infrastructure, and issue revenue bonds for the necessary improvements? Interest rates are at a historic low, making it an excellent time to do so. If this administration simply can’t manage parking, create a Municipal Parking Authority, as Councilor Jackie Nytes has suggested.
However we proceed, we should park this proposal. Permanently.