Let’s call a spade a spade – the original, notorious Parking Meter Deal sucks. It sucks so bad that it’s amazing former Mayor Richard M. Daley isn’t villified by every single Chicagoan who pays taxes or parks in a metered space in the City or – pity the fools – both. It is completely, utterly outrageous that street parking, as a massive public revenue generator that is basically a cash printing machine, could have been sold for pennies on the dollar. (We might pretend that a 75-year lease is not a sale, but from everything but a technical legal perspective, it was sold out from under the feet of a couple of generations of Chicagoans.) Alderman Reilly might have briefly considered the possibility of a contract buy-back, but something tells us the buyout amount suggested to him by his experts was so stratospheric as to be unmentionable for fear of social unrest. We’re stuck with the civic misdealing, we’re stuck with Chicago Parking Meters, we’re stuck with paying a fortune to park in our City, and we’re stuck with the opportunity cost of parking revenue that should have been ours – not theirs – into perpetuity.
A key aspect of the original, notorious Parking Meter Deal is that CPM can charge the City when, for example, a meter is not printing cash due to some blameworthy action by the City like, say, a street closure. Essentially, the contract ensures that CPM gets paid for meters that it expected to be productive but aren’t, even temporarily. In these instances, CPM submits an invoice to the City for so-called “True-Ups”. This provides CPM with its expected benefit from the agreement with the City. Keeping it real, as it were. (Never mind that the City is unlikely to realize its optimistic hopes for the agreement.) These True-Ups, like my mother-in-law, show up quarterly to wreak havoc to an extent far greater than expected. The City received CPM’s invoices since 2010 totalling almost $50,000,000. The City protested the invoiced amounts. The matter went to arbitration and the City was found liable for almost the entirety.
At this point in the proceedings, our Mayor’s colorful language would almost certainly have included a fifty-million-long string of F-bombs. After all, as bad as it might be to owe CPM vast amounts of taxpayer money for the last couple of years, it pales by comparison to budgeting much more taxpayer money to keep CPM real into infinity, which is what 71 years represents to anyone reading this. To the Mayor, it also represents about $1,000,000,000.
So a deal needed to be struck to settle the arbitrated obligation and to reframe future True-Ups to minimize their budgetary impact on the taxpaying public. The Mayor might have been incensed, but his hands were tied by the ruling. CPM was almost certainly in a very strong position. I doubt the Mayor has much experience sitting across the table from folks barely concealing their smug satisfaction and with his balls nestled not-so-gently in the palm of their hands. Under these circumstances, it is logical to assume that whatever deal there was to be had would come at a steep price. Let’s keep in mind that we’re talking cash printing machine here…possibly the holy grail of privatized street parking. So rich and lavish is this contract that CPM can afford the best political, legal and accounting resources to ensure that nothing occurs to jeopardize the contract’s value or existence. There could and would be no “technical” out for the City. Reading the contract, one cannot help but to be amazed by its onesidedness. Seemingly every possible contingency is covered. If the Sun were to explode and propel Earth’s shards Tommy-Gun-like into neighboring planets, this contract would still maintain its self-perpetuating orbit around whatever cold-hearted mass remains with a gravitational pulse. Hell, even we’re reduced to F-bombs just thinking about this City Council (yes, the current City Council is substantially similar to the cloggers who danced through the original, notorious Parking Meter Deal) who say, like teenagers and lemmings running off the precipice, “it’s not my fault – how was I supposed to know it was a cliff? – everyone else was jumping off it.”
So the Mayor did a deal with the devil. It’s not a good deal. It’s simply less suckworthy than the original, notorious deal. Effectively, he has refinanced most of the anticipated True-Ups and transferred the obligation to pay for them from one group (Chicago taxpayers) to another group (people who park in Chicago). If you are a taxpayer who doesn’t regularly park on metered Chicago streets, you will benefit by not having to pay as much in taxes as you would otherwise have had to because now CPM will get additional revenue from expanded parking hours and other neat revenue sources. In other words, now CPM will reach directly into the pockets of parkers for more money instead of billing the City. This, it is presumed, will be a more pleasing tonic to voters. It is tonic nonetheless, and there are groups of voters who are expressing their displeasure, loudest of which are those who reside in the areas of concentrated, expanded meter parking like Alderman Reilly’s downtown ward.
So this is an ugly deal. And the Mayor has the votes to get the deal through City Council today and, he hopes, put the original, notorious Parking Meter Deal in our rear view mirror.
Why then do we not just swallow our tonic like good boys and girls and go to bed as the Mayor would like us to do? Because in the art of his ugly dealmaking he went astray. Instead of just doing an ugly deal and fessing up that he did his best to simply transfer the punishing, crushing obligation onto a group that can simply choose not to park on metered City streets (many of whom, it must be presumed, are not Chicago taxpayers or voters), he pandered to the political notion of making his ugly deal look like it had something more obviously beneficial for us than reworked financial wizardry, that being “free Sunday parking”. And, to drive the obviousness of the benefit home, he observed that he did it for the churchgoers. This was instantly read for what it is – pandering to us like we’re a bunch of churchgoing idiots. Even the use of the word church incenses us because it invokes that whole separation of church and state thing, not to mention that the Mayor might be expected to be more sensitive to the obvious reality that there are faiths for which the words church or Sunday do not apply. But even more disturbing is that the free Sunday parking is neither a widespread benefit nor – from a fiscal perspective – warranted.
Let’s dismiss the benefit aspect first. If the intent is to benefit churchgoers, then all that need be done is to turn off the meters that are in the immediate vicinity of a church and other places of worship. This amounts to a very small number of meters. Meters on commercial streets and commercial-ancillary streets should remain active on Sundays because local retailers need them to ensure turnover and broader customer access to convenient parking near stores. If you are not a retailer, you don’t appreciate the value of this. But if you are a retailer whose sales produce sales taxes you are crystal clear on the value of parking space turnover. This leaves purely residential areas that are currently metered. We say, leave them active. Why?
Because they’re active now and we didn’t ask for them to be turned off and so why are we demanding to keep something that we don’t have? Let’s keep perspective in mind here. This is about our City’s fiscal integrity. While this expression may drive us to laughter and tears simultaneously, it is what we’re talking about. Sunday parking is about revenue to the City. The Mayor apparently doesn’t want it. CPM doesn’t care about it. But we need it. So let CPM continue to collect it and kick back 85% to the City. We repeat: WE NEED IT. And we need it more than the arguments for free Sunday parking.
So we would ask our Mayor and our Aldermen to do the right thing here. Put lipstick on this pig of a notorious Parking Meter Deal that sucks, but stay true to the ugly imperative of negotiating an optimal fiscal amendment. We don’t want you to do us any Sunday favors that we never asked for. We want a City that acts with optimal fiscal prudence. We want a City Council that understands that even as children we were not assuaged by the free and counterintuitive lollipop offered at the end of a dental visit. The obligatory visit still sucked. But we have our teeth.