The Chicago City Council today approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s controversial plan to change the terms of the city’s parking meter lease despite questions about the deal’s financial impact and fear of giving Chicago Parking Meters LLC another windfall.
After lengthy debate, the council voted 39-11 in favor after the mayor’s aides spent the morning talking to aldermen trying to tamp down the number of votes against the mayor’s plan. Although there were more opposition votes than typical during Emanuel’s two years in office, the number fell short of the 14 “no” votes logged in April 2012, when the council approved the mayor’s plan to set up speed cameras near schools and parks.
Ald. Robert Fioretti, 2nd, contended aldermen don't have enough information about the finances of the new meter plan. He asked his colleagues to remember the bad parking meter deal they passed under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley with too little information a few years ago.
"Do any of us remember 2008? Did we not learn anything?" Fioretti asked.
Fioretti criticized officials from Chicago Parking Meters for not coming to any City Council hearings on the new plan. "You can hear the crickets. It's like deja vu all over again," he said.
Fioretti wondered whether by agreeing to these changes, the city would preclude itself from possibly tearing up the meter contract entirely in the future, though that would be difficult given that nearly all of the upfront money the city got already has been spent.
"Some lemons shouldn't be made into lemonade," Fioretti said, a reference to Emanuel's oft-repeated defense of his proposed change. "Some lemons should be returned to the store for a refund."
But Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th, said it's shortsighted for aldermen wary of the free Sundays clause to turn down a chance to reduce the true-up money owed to CPM.
"That's tantamount to tripping over $100 bills to pick up nickels," Ervin said.
After the vote, Emanuel reiterated his oft-repeated refrain that “it’s still a bad deal, and you can’t fix it. It’s that bad.”
But he said the lowering of penalty payments would benefit the city for generations to come. “This is the right thing to do for the next 71 years,” Emanuel said.
The vote came after Maria Guerra, the mayor’s chief council lobbyist, worked through the morning to convince aldermen to back the measure, even though it was clear days ago that Emanuel had a clear majority of aldermen backing his changes.
There were more “no votes” than when the original deal was approved 40-5 in late 2008 under Daley.
That deal gave Chicago Parking Meters LLC the right to collect all revenue from the meters for 75 years in exchange for an upfront cash payment to the city of $1.15 billion — all but $125 million of which was spent by the time Emanuel took office in mid-2011.
It also led to soaring meter rates and city payments of tens of millions of dollars for more unpaid parking by people with disabled placards and loss of revenue due to the city taking meters out of service than allowed under the contract.
Under Emanuel’s changes, the city reduced its payment for meters out of service during the past two years to $8.9 million from about $50 million. The meter company also agreed to change the way it calculates meters out of service, which the mayor’s top lieutenants say will reduce penalty payments by $1 billion during the remaining 71 years of the lease.
The more controversial part of the mayor’s changes involved the trade-off of free Sunday parking outside the central business district for longer hours at all metered spaces that require payment until 9 p.m. In most areas, those hours will be extended to 10 p.m. In River North, Streeterville and parts of the Gold Coast, hours will be extended until 12 a.m.
Opposition aldermen led by Ald. Brendan Reilly, whose 42nd Ward will be hardest hit by the extended hours, questioned whether the longer hours would result in a financial windfall for the meter company. The mayor’s top lieutenants said it’s a break-even proposition for the company.
At least nine aldermen and as many as 15 are expected to quickly seek further changes that would allow them to restore paid Sunday parking in commercial districts within their wards. Business owners have told them that they need paid parking on Sundays to ensure turnover of spaces so their customers can more easily find street parking.
The changes also include the option to use a phone cell app to feed the meters. That comes with a fee of 35 cents for any purchase of less than two hours and the requirement to keep a minimum of $10 in an account off which the company can draw interest.
A Tribune analysis found that even if the mayor’s changes save money as projected by his top lieutenants, taxpayers and meter users still could end up paying the company $517 million in today's dollars during the remainder of the lease for meters out of service because of city actions, excessive use of disabled placards that allow free parking, and the pay-by-cell program.
That number, however, likely would be reduced by the restoration of paid Sunday parking in the commercial areas. That could save tens of millions of dollars over the long run.
Aldermen who voted against the deal were: Robert Fioretti, 2nd; Leslie Hairston, 5th; Scott Waguespack, 32nd; Rey Colon, 35th; Brendan Reilly, 42nd; Michele Smith, 43rd; Tom Tunney, 44th; John Arena, 45th; Ameya Pawar, 47th; Harry Osterman, 48th; and Debra Silverstein, 50th.
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