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24 Aldermen Rush To Support Mayor’s Proposed Parking Meter Changes

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CHICAGO (CBS) – After facing vociferous backlash from residents over the hated parking meter lease, two dozen Chicago aldermen have rushed to support the Emanuel administration’s agreement with the parking meter firm to offer free Sunday parking, as part of a series of proposed changes to the 75-year deal.

Their public support for the proposed changes came only one day after Mayor Rahm Emanuel formally presented the plan to the City Council. Only two more votes would be needed to approve the changes.

Some of the City Council’s most powerful aldermen, including Finance Committee Chairman Ed Burke (14th), Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th), and the mayor’s floor leader, Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th) praised the free Sunday parking plan.

“Our neighborhoods will get a much deserved reprieve from these meters that will allow our families and their loved ones a day of enjoyment, shopping, and visiting with each other,” Austin said.

In exchange for free parking on Sunday, the parking meter firm will be allowed to charge for parking for an hour to three hours longer at many meters Mondays through Saturdays.

A group of 24 aldermen have announced in a press release that they have signed on to the proposed changes to the parking meter deal, less than two days after the mayor introduced the 359-page ordinance outlining the agreement.

“We all know that this deal should have never been done in the first place. And the mayor fought and got a day of rest for our residents and local businesses. Free Sundays will help people visit our communities to enjoy all that they have to offer,” Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said in the release. Hairston was one of only five aldermen to vote against the parking meter lease. Two of those aldermen are no longer on the City Council.

The 24 aldermen’s quick public support for the changes is surprising, given Emanuel went out of his way to make sure the City Council had several weeks to consider the agreement before voting, and had not provided the full details of the changes until Wednesday’s City Council meeting. The Finance Committee was not scheduled to vote on the measure until next month.

“I expect the City Council to take the time to review this proposal, and ask the necessary questions; time that wasn’t provided the first time around,” Emanuel said when he first announced the proposed changes on April 29.

On Friday, the mayor wouldn’t criticize aldermen for rushing to publicly support the changes to the deal before holding any public hearings on the matter.

“People will examine it. People will kick the tires. They should, that’s what I’ve asked for, that’s what I want, because it didn’t happen (with the original lease),” the mayor told CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine. “Everybody knows what their residents feel like for the last four years about this deal.”

Other aldermen have been reluctant to rush to judgment on the proposed changes.

After Emanuel announced the agreement, Ald. Scott Waguespack (36th) – who voted against the parking meter lease in 2008 – said free Sunday parking in the neighborhoods might be “decent,” but said it might not offset the expense motorists would face from longer parking hours.

“It’s either going to be a wash, or … CPM is going to make a lot more money on it, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have agreed to it,” Waguespack said. “They’re businessmen, they came at it from the angle of making money, that’s what their job is to do on this whole deal, and it has been and will be for the next 70 years.”

Last week, Emanuel announced a set of proposed changes to the parking meter deal, aimed at what he described as “trying to make a little lemonade out of a big lemon.”

Emanuel said months of negotiations with Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, have resulted in an agreement saving the city more than $1 billion over the life of the 75-year lease deal.

Among the changes would be providing free parking at neighborhood parking meters outside the central part of the city on Sunday, in exchange for extended hours for most parking meters Monday through Saturday, in exchange for longer hours at many parking meters Monday through Saturday.

“We all realize that no one can ever turn this bad deal into a good one, but my constituents are glad that the mayor took the opportunity to provide them with a little relief from it. This isn’t his deal, but he at least tried to fix it. We could not live with it as is for the next 71 years. Free Sundays will be good for our businesses and families,” Ald. George Cardenas (12th) said.

The proposed changes would also save the city $1 billion in future liabilities as part of a settlement of the dispute with the parking meter firm over more than $60 million bills for lost revenue from street closures and disabled parking.

The mayor had refused to pay those bills, believing the city was being overcharged. He ordered an audit of the lease deal, and city officials determined the company had been over-billing the city by approximately $20 million per year.

Under the proposed changes, rather than rely on Chicago Parking Meters’ estimates for lost revenue from when streets are closed for parades or festivals, or from free parking for the disabled, the city will conduct its own accounting to determine what it owes.

The mayor has estimated that will save the city $1 billion over the remaining 71 years of the deal.

Waugespack has said he’s not impressed with that aspect of the proposed changes.

“Most of us won’t be alive to even see that, so I think that’s problematic,” he said. “When you look at it, you want to say let’s sit down at the table and figure out what we’re really saving here. What’s realistic?”

Ald. Rey Colon (35th), the only other sitting alderman who voted against the meter deal, said the issues of Sunday parking and the dispute over lost revenue from street closures and disabled parking should not be tied together.

In a letter emailed to his constituents, Colon said, “We need to settle up with them, but I disagree with co-mingling Free Sundays or Pay-by-Phone in the same package. We should be able to examine each item separately to ensure the lemonade isn’t spiked.”

“For me, the jury is still out on Free Sundays. I’m not interested in giving CPM an extra nickel or an extra hour because I don’t know the value of what I’m trading. Will extended hours of parking cost drivers even more money? I don’t think anyone knows yet (except maybe CPM?)” Colon added. “While we do have a month to decide, 24 Aldermen have already pledged their support for Free Sundays and the Parking Meter Deal 2.0. I would appreciate your feedback on this historically significant matter since once again you have been left out of the conversation.”

The City Council was harshly criticized four years ago, when it rushed to approve the parking meter deal without a single public hearing.

Almost immediately after approving the $1.15 billion lease of the city’s parking meters to a private firm in December 2008, aldermen faced heated criticism from Chicago residents – in large part because they approved the deal only three days after Mayor Richard M. Daley gave it to them, with minimal public discussion of the lease.

The decision to approve the parking meter deal blew up in aldermen’s faces when parking meters malfunctioned shortly after the private firm took over, parking meter prices jumped every year, and a report from the city’s Inspector General indicated the city was giving up more than $2 billion in future revenue by leasing the meters.

On top of that, the company later billed the city tens of millions of dollars for lost revenue when parking meters were put out of service for street festivals, parades, and other events; or for when motorists with disabled parking placards took advantage of free parking.

The proposed changes to the deal would also provide motorists with pay-by-cell option for parking meters, which would allow them to park at meters without having to place a receipt on their dashboard.

To pay with their cell phones, drivers would have to open an account with a minimum $20 balance, would be charged 35 cents per transaction, and would have to pay for at least 30 minutes of parking time. Their account would be automatically replenished when the balance drops below $10.