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City Council Holds First Hearing On Proposed Changes To Parking Meter Deal

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CHICAGO (CBS) – The Emanuel administration began making its case to aldermen for a package of changes to the hated parking meter lease deal on Friday.

WBBM Newsradio’s Mike Krauser reports the mayor’s office has negotiated several changes to the 75-year deal with Chicago Parking Meters LLC. The deal would provide free Sunday parking in the neighborhoods, while extending nighttime hours at many meters on Monday through Saturday.

The deal would also settle a dispute between the city and the company over revenue lost to street closures and use of disabled parking placards, which allow drivers to park for free.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who represents the downtown area where many meters would operate three hours longer Monday through Saturday, said he’s not convinced the Emanuel administration’s math is good on the new deal.

He also noted the conspicuous absence of the parking meter firm at Friday’s meeting of the City Council Finance Committee.

“Since they refused to be before us today, litigation or not, their absence speaks volumes,” he said.

The parking meter deal has been a sore spot for aldermen ever since former Mayor Richard M. Daley rushed the lease through the City Council in December 2008. The switchover to the private parking meter firm was plagued by malfunctioning meters, and parking rates have skyrocketed due to annual rate hikes.

The city was paid $1.15 billion for the deal, but virtually all of that money already has been spent to pay outstanding debt and to help balance city budget deficits in recent years.

At the Finance Committee hearing, City Corporation Counsel Steve Patton was asked whether the city could simply get out of the deal altogether.

“I looked at that option. There’d be no greater hero in the city than the lawyer who could say, ‘Okay, we’re walking away,’” Patton said.

Ald. Joe Moore (49th) and others expressed concerns that the changes to the deal would not include a cap on what the company gets from the deal.

“That seems to be, ultimately, what’s causing concern for everyone; is this windfall,” Moore said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said taxpayers would save $1 billion over the remaining 71 years of the lease, thanks to an agreement to allow the city to calculate how much it owes to the parking meter firm for lost revenue from street closures, rather than relying on the company’s estimates. The mayor has said an audit he ordered found the firm had been overcharging the city $20 million a year.

The mayor repeatedly has said he wants to “make a little lemonade out of a big lemon” by getting the parking meter firm to agree to free Sunday parking in the neighborhoods, and reducing the city’s liability for lost parking revenue from street closures.

In exchange for free parking on Sundays, the city has agreed to extend the hours that many parking meters must be fed. Meters that now must be fed until 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday will operate until 10 p.m., except just north of downtown (an area bounded by the Chicago River to the south and west, the lake to the east, and Division Street to the north), where they must be feed until midnight, according to the mayor’s office.

Residential parking meters that now must be paid until 6 p.m. won’t be affected. Most meters in and around the Loop already must be fed 24 hours a day.

In addition, the motorists will be given an option to pay for parking with their cell phones, rather than having to walk to the pay-and-display boxes to print out a parking sticker, then take it back to their cars.

The pay-by-cell option will carry a 35-cent convenience fee for each parking meter purchase. The pay-by-cell option would eliminate the need for a driver to place a parking receipt on his or her dashboard. The technology will be available by summer 2014.

Most aldermen already have voiced support for the free Sunday parking plan.

The Finance Committee was scheduled to meet again on Tuesday for a second hearing on the proposed changes, before a full City Council vote as early as mid-June.