Some aldermen calling meter deal a mistake

July 2, 2009 3:31:58 PM PDT
The company that now controls Chicago's parking meters was grilled by aldermen Thursday about problems with meters across the city. There are loud calls that the deal to privatize the meters should be renegotiated.

"You all have to communicate, you have to communicate and you can't keep deceiving the public," said Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward.

Mayor Daley turned 36,000 meters over to a private contractor, Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, and its operating company, LAZ parking, last December. Since then, the decision has faced scrutiny and the machines have been plagued with problems. Now, many Chicago alderman are saying the deal was a mistake.

Channeling constituent anger, Ald. Hairston told LAZ Parking how she felt ripped off after following instructions for parking at one of Chicago's new meter boxes.

"It is not an acceptable answer to say, well, it's the meter's fault that rang up $32.50. You all told the meter company what to do, and that's what I'm telling you is deceptive," said Hairston.

There were several testy exchanges led by politicians who are increasingly regretting voting for Mayor Daley's deal to privatize the meters.

"We have 116 people employed under LAZ Parking. Eighty-plus percent of them are city residents and 74 percent of them are qualified minorities," said a LAZ Parking representative.

"And I repeat, where are the black people?" said Ald. Freddrenna Lyle, 6th Ward.

City negotiators defended the deal to the politicians, saying last December Chicago was in a financial crisis, and jobs and services would be cut without the $1.15 billion a consortium paid the city to take over running the meters for 75 years.

"This is not at all about conducting an academic exercise or running theoretical mathematical equations. It's about doing what's right for the people," said Gene Saffold, Chicago's chief financial officer, last December.

Since then, some city meters have been choked to inoperability as drivers paid for parking that tripled in cost in some parts of the city. A few weeks ago new parking meter boxes simultaneously went on the fritz for most of one day.

The finance committee may formally review whether getting $1.15 billion was fair value for a traditional civic money-maker.

"The city relied on one opinion, the William Blair Company, but it really didn't explore other opinions. Didn't have other eyes looking at this contract and unfortunately we are experiencing the downsides of not fully vetting this contract," said Ald. Joe Moore, 49th Ward.

He wasn't alone. The deal was approved overwhelmingly. Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, voted no because he didn't think he had enough information.

"We've given away one of our greatest assets here in the city," said Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward.

Most aldermen ABC7 spoke to, including Ed Smith who represents the 28th Ward, say they wouldn't be surprised if this whole situation ends up in court.

Just a reminder for people traveling downtown on Saturday: the Fourth of July is no longer a parking meter holiday. Part of the privatization deal is that you now have to feed them 365 days a year.


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