Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Parking Authority: Still Driving Us to Distraction

We're being told, and not for the last time:

Council has delayed nighttime meter enforcement until July 1 while it continues to press the parking authority for money it says is needed to help offset the diversion of $735 million in parking tax money for a pension bailout.

The parking tax money will be taken from the general fund over 31 years. The annual diversion is $13.4 million through 2017, then jumps to $26.8 million through 2041. This year, the city will receive about $507,000 in parking meter revenue, $2.6 million in parking authority subsidies and $7.6 million in parking court revenue.

Council members have said they want as much as $9.3 million in subsidies from the authority, partly because of on-street meter rate increases that began taking effect in 2011. (P-G, Joe Smydo

It's not exactly mammoth, glass-clad and glowing, but it's an accurate portrait of the background noise on the 5th floor at the start of 2013, a pivotal electoral year.

Has there ever been a topic in the City of Pittsburgh more sadistically boring and more constant than pensions+parking? I think we can set aside any notion that mayoral critics are pumping the "We need Parking Authority revenues!" controversy for high-octane political fuel.

But we need to know what on earth is the drama. Why are we not flush with increased parking cash, but rather slated to continue borrowing and scrimping to the degree we are projected? Down the rabbit hole we go!


Summarily -- gosh, how to make this brief? -- At the end of 2010, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl wished to satisfy the State Legislature's nebby worrying over our horrible pension funding situation by leasing City parking spaces to the private sector for tons of money, and having them raise parking rates and increase efficiencies to recoup a profit. But most of City Council and the rest of the city wanted to just raise our own parking rates and get efficient ourselves, with a "promise" to pay more of the pensions aided by those proceeds. That latter strategy won out, and "promised" money is flying out the door year by year -- though Ravenstahl's critics are saying his Parking Authority has been dragging its feet in increasing revenues for the City to replace it.

And that's all we ever, ever, ever talk about, ever.

It should be easy enough to tell whether the Parking Authority "dragged its feet" or "dogged it." It only took a month after Council's plan enactment in 2010 for it to warn, it was busy with other things. The idea of unseemly delay was being floated by March.

It seemed like everybody was by then already really impatient, but the mayor's office was suggesting critics could go ahead and try them but quit complaining about a "stealth deal" to bring back the lease. We started arguing about whether numbers are real. And then things briefly got less stealthy! Seemingly the moment after the Authority started moving forward with some new higher rates, it began moving backward. At this point people were fit to be tied. But then, just as the Authority was inventing seemingly new reasons to delay... City Council apparently finally gave up trying to force the Mayor to do something he clearly wasn't about to do.

At the end of 2011 City Council took another stab at motivating the Parking Authority, but that went just about as badly as a thing can go. Soon after, ironically enough, we were treated to a lecture on Council ruining the careful cake recipe of generating more revenue for City coffers at the Parking Authority. And the Ravenstahl administration was like, gosh, this Linda Judson seems to have a knack for this!

Linda Judson: Cohen & Grace, LLC
It wasn't until April of this year that new parking meters were requisitioned by the Parking Authority to support the upgrade, or 16 months following the 2010 "pensions solution". Although that also was backpedaled here and there, eventually by an exasperated Council as well, that is only when it came to meters. Strangely enough, the Parking Authority seems now to be turning its sights on other projects, like pursuing parking availability info by the web, a space-reservation program and pay by phone -- yet in the midst of this adventuresomeness no rate increases at garages, even though the garages were always part of the plan.

The plan to strengthen a revenue stream. To replace what's necessarily flying out the door to go to the pensions. Which in the absence of action, is acting as a significant drag on the City's operating and capital budget. To repair the city and provide services.

Council President Harris and Finance Chair Burgess recently led the City Channel viewing audience to understand there would soon be a special public meeting with the Parking Authority. Not yet scheduled it seems. Probably once again this time it will make for the finest political theater.


ANYWAY. Yes, Council will this year talk about increasing nonprofit contributions to the City, generating ad revenue, redeveloping the Strip District and District 9, and overhauling certain aspects of public safety.

But be prepared to continue going completely numb to the argument about pensions and parking. Just struggle to understand what they're talking about, and you should feel a lot less hopeless about it.

At the heart of it, Mayor Ravenstahl has been openly hostile to generating revenue from a publicly managed parking authority in order to underwrite the city's pension expenses. Meanwhile, attempts by City Council to "force" the Mayor to do so anyway have been 1) necessarily futile and 2) increasingly politically inconsistent.


  1. Bram, while I don't always agree with you, this was pretty good. Here is where I am confused though (not pointed at you, unless it should be). Here is what I want to know from the "good government" and "progressive" folks. Why should an independent authority take specific direction from the Mayor or Council? Before the confused starting trowing a tantrum and screaming that Ravenstahl's authorities are not independent, that wasn't the question. The question is whether or not an independent authority SHOULD take specific direction to do something or not do something. If you want good government then you need to advocate for good government practices, right? Next question for "good government" and "progressive" advocates. What is the purpose of the PA and should that be its sole function? If not, is the proper course to change the PA's charter? Finally, I don't understand why Ravenstahl is getting so much heat about the proposed lease (actually I do). I mean as you point out he was pretty much ordered by the State to do something about funding pensions and to look at the PA. He came up with a plan. That plan caused council to examine it and ultimately reject it and come up with a different plan. Isn't that how good government is supposed to work?

  2. Anon 3:13 asks, "Why should an independent authority take specific direction from the Mayor or Council?"

    Only if it's good direction, good advice. If it so happens to be the one workable plan available, the only one "shovel-ready" given the only other prominent option was so desperately unpopular, it seems advisable to go ahead. Rather than leave annual 8-digits sums on the table.

    Don't blame me, I liked the Lease. In the end I thought the Mayor's folks could have negotiated with LAZ/JP, written-in a better contract, perhaps better credited some more non-Chicagoan vendors, but hindsight is 20/20. It's not like the objectors on Council were renowned negotiators, they were grandstanding.

    "He came up with a plan. That plan caused council to examine it and ultimately reject it and come up with a different plan. Isn't that how good government is supposed to work?"

    Yeah, but only if we then do the plan. In fairness to the Parking Authority though I bet bondholder priorities will rear their head in stories...

  3. And thank you for the classy compliment.

  4. Anon 3:13, if the mayor successfully directs the PA to do something he wants and they do it ... and then, later, the mayor FAILS to direct the PA to do something he DOESN'T want ...

    That's not "good government". "Good government" is when independent boards are independent. So to suggest that government is somehow working the way it should because the mayor didn't force the PA's hand in this case is really disingenuous.

  5. don't know about "good government", but in the universe where the Authority does pretty much what the Mayor tells it to -- one thing which would resolve a lot of dissonance would be if the Mayor said to everybody, "Hey, it's still my intention to refuse to enact the Council majority and the Controller's plan to fund our pensions for these reasons... and here is the approach I'm pursuing instead."

    Instead of that we're getting, "Hey, I'd like to pursue Council and the Controller's plan, really I would, because I'm collaborative and reasonable. Their plan just keeps getting dropped and burned and shot with a gun and covered in acid."

  6. Trash an all the boards. If you want accountability then direct it to those we've elected. The quasi governmental boards and authorities only
    Complicate the process. Council perosn A should have parking, Councilperson B should have Housing( why is govt in the housing business ?)
    And so on? Dd Hillary have a stroke, just wondering out loud!?

  7. I'm with anon on trash all the boards. Is it interesting how the more we create "process" and boards and task forces and commissions and "process" the more we make the "process" impossible for citizens to navigate and less accountable the elected officials become.

  8. Anons 12:41 & 7:44 - the main reason all these Authorities exist the way that they do is so they can issue debt to execute their functions but not have it wind up on the City's books and credit report. The fact that they can also raise taxes & rates, and make decisions politically occluded from elected officials, is believe it or not just an "extra added bonus" for them.

    In order for the Parking Authority, for example, to dissolve it would first have to retire about $100 million worth of its debt. (That was one reason, incidentally, why I always believed a lease in theory didn't have to be a bad thing.) It's hard to find that kind of money lying around, but if we're talking about thinking of these Authority functions as fiscal supports for the City then yes, you might want to look at dissolving them back into the City. Patrick Dowd floated the idea at the start of 2011.

    1. Bram, still a film flam no matter how they spin it!

  9. How about changing board seats on a regular basis so no one gets too comfortable? Rev. Ricky is CHAIR of the Housing Auth. I think that is too much power. Rotate the board seats on council.

  10. Now you did it ... man the battle stations, incoming from Shawn Carter!

  11. carter sould get his own blog.

  12. 3000 spaces given to Penguins in Lower Hill.

  13. I managed to miss these comments over the weekend.

    Anon 1/4/12 @ 8:57AM - What exactly is it that I was to have said?

  14. It was a joke Shawn. Somebody dissed your boss in the preceding comment, thought it might prompt you to weigh in.