Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld was one of the first to find out about a memo that’s spurred renewed calls to halt the city’s plans to lease its parking meters, lots and garages to the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority. Not only was the memo critical of some of the lease’s financial details, but it was also kept from the public, City Council and the Port for nearly a month.
The importance of Sittenfeld’s discovery seemed to weigh quickly on city and Port Authority officials. On July 10, Port CEO Laura Brunner, who had also found out about the memo on that same day, was told to prepare to discuss its details after Sittenfeld began enquiring about it. In an email for which she later apologized, Brunner hurriedly wrote to City Manager Milton Dohoney and City Solicitor John Curp, “Can we please wait? How does he know it exists?”
Sittenfeld’s involvement in the process was nothing new. Since City Council approved the parking lease in March and a court upheld its implementation in June, Sittenfeld has been involved in ongoing talks with city and Port Authority officials to improve, if not repeal, the deal.
“I voted against the deal, I didn’t think it was a good one and I also didn’t think enough information had come out about it,” he says. “But if it has the support of a majority of Council and the Port wants to proceed with it, my attitude is never going to be, ‘I’ll give up.’ It’s going to be, ‘Working within reality, how can I shape this to be the best deal for citizens possible?’ ”
It also wasn’t new for the Port Authority. Once the city signed the lease, it fell on the Port to decide the deal’s finer details, particularly the terms of contracts with private companies that will operate Cincinnati’s parking assets. In that time frame, concerned citizens, public officials and influential businesspeople have lobbied the Port to get a favorable deal or even to scrap the plan altogether.
Sittenfeld’s pursuit began after he corresponded with Harry Kangis, an influential former Procter & Gamble executive. After running his own numbers, Kangis concluded the city will lose out on long-term revenue by taking on the parking lease. Compelled to do something about it, he took the numbers to Sittenfeld.
After some discussions with city and Port Authority officials, Sittenfeld helped arrange an early-July meeting between the Port Authority and Kangis. In a July 5 letter to the Port Authority prefacing the meeting, Kangis explained his many problems with the lease, running through issues ranging from the “extremely poor legislative process followed by the Mayor and Council” to long-term revenue losses and the plan’s reliance on “far too many parking tickets.”
“This also represents a substantial (public relations) risk to the Port and its board members, as the elected officials who allowed this to happen will be long gone, and their replacements will be happy to send the unhappy parkers to the Port,” Kangis wrote. “The upside for the Port in maybe getting resources for more development projects 20 years from now pales compared to the risk to its political and public support right now.”
The presentation, which was given to Port Authority board members and advisers on July 8, reinforced what some within the Port had already been saying. In an email to Brunner, Port Authority Vice Chairwoman Lynn Marmer wrote, “This whole parking issue has been a gigantic distraction from our core mission.”
It was less then two days later when Sittenfeld says he first learned of the June 20 memo from a staffer who likely heard about it from an administration official. His discovery led to a series of questions that brought the Port Authority and eventually the rest of City Council and the public into the conversation.
Authored by a city-hired consultant, the memo suggested Xerox will be overpaid once it takes over Cincinnati’s parking meters.
Despite the city paying more than $300,000 for Walker Parking Consultants’ work on the lease, the company’s June 20 memo was kept from the public, City Council and the Port Authority for three-plus weeks — at least until media outlets and Sittenfeld began asking about its existence and details.
Since its release, Mayor Mark Mallory, Dohoney and their staff have defended the administration’s actions by pointing out the memo lacked context, used outdated information and made technical errors in its analysis — claims that John Dorsett, the memo’s author, seems to agree with.
After a city official launched an email criticizing the memo, Dorsett responded, “Agreed.
Meanwhile, the Port Authority says it’s still working to finalize its contracts with Xerox and other companies from around the nation that will operate and upgrade the city’s parking assets. Port officials on July 19 announced they will need more time to work out those details, which could lead to a better deal for the city and Port.
Beyond the details of the memo, both supporters and critics of the parking lease have voiced anger over what they see as a lack of transparency within the city administration.
“Good communication is always getting out in front of an issue,” Sittenfeld says. “If you don’t like the content of a given memo or you disagree with a given analysis, get it out in the open and explain why. Don’t conceal it.”
He adds, “How could they look back on the events of the past week or 10 days and not agree with that? This has not been good for them. This has not been good for their brand.”
The city administration continues insisting it made the right call.
“Walker’s analysis was based on outdated information. The Administration would not typically provide outdated information to Council,” wrote Meg Olberding, city spokesperson, in an email to CityBeat.
And so the city administration and Port Authority have pushed forward with the lease. The city estimates it will get $92 million up front and at least $3 million a year afterward from the 30-year deal. The Port Authority will get an upfront payment of $319,125 and about $300,000 a year. There are also talks among city officials of using $27 million of the city’s upfront payment to fund various development projects through the Port.
City Council passed the deal in March under promises that the infusion of funding would help balance the budget without laying off cops and firefighters and also fund development projects. But once the parking lease was held up in court, Council managed to balance the operating budget without public safety layoffs and progressed with some of the development projects, including a downtown grocery store, by tapping into alternate funds.
Sittenfeld says he’s generally supportive of more development projects and could support giving more funding to the Port Authority, but he argues the parking lease is the wrong approach. Beginning with the plan’s announcement last October, Sittenfeld began voicing concerns that the semi-privatization plan will lead to stricter ticket enforcement, higher parking rates and longer operation hours, which could all hurt downtown businesses by scaring off potential customers.
In response, city officials claim the lease will retain local control through an advisory board, which will be made up of four members appointed by the Port Authority and one appointed by the city manager. That advisory board will be able to change parking rates with a unanimous vote, but those changes will require approval from the city manager and Port Authority.
Under the original terms, parking meter rates downtown will go up by 25 cents every three years, and rates in neighborhoods will go up by 25 cents every six years. Operation hours will also be expanded to 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. downtown and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in neighborhoods, although some city officials want to reduce those hours.
Besides more practical concerns, Sittenfeld says he has philosophical issues with the lease rooted in a broader opposition to privatization.
“The reason why someone on the private side would want to take control of (a city asset) is because they see great value in it,” he says. “Shouldn’t there be great value in it for the city and for the public?”
City officials argue that limits in state law make it difficult to use revenue from Cincinnati’s parking assets for development projects and other programs that don’t directly relate to improving parking services. But those limits don’t apply to revenue raised from parking meters, which city officials have admitted could be allocated by City Council for operating budget purposes.
The administration also claims that the city doesn’t have the resources to efficiently manage and upgrade the city’s parking meters. Two current problems: The city’s meters don’t take remote credit card payments — which Xerox promises to change — and roughly half of the meters in Over-the-Rhine are broken.
Regardless of the dispute, the future of the parking lease now lies with the Port Authority — a fact readily acknowledged by both sides. By continuing to apply pressure and asking questions, Sittenfeld says he can at least help the Port give the lease its due diligence. ©
Parking Drama Timeline
Oct. 26, 2012: In a memo to city employees, City Manager Milton Dohoney announces plan to pursue privatization of Cincinnati’s parking assets.
Dec. 14, 2012: City Council passes an operating budget for 2013 that hedges on parking privatization.
Feb. 19, 2013: The city administration unveils its plan to lease the city’s parking meters, lots and garages to the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority, which will use various private companies from around the nation to operate the assets. Dohoney says the city will use the proceeds from the plan to help balance the budget for two years and pay for development projects, including a downtown grocery store and the I-71/MLK Interchange.
Feb. 27, 2013: In a presentation to City Council, Dohoney claims the city would have to lay off 344 employees, including 80 firefighters and 189 cops, to balance its operating budget without the parking lease.
March 6, 2013: City Council approves the parking lease. Within minutes of the approval, Hamilton County Judge Robert Winkler puts the plan on hold as opponents take it to court and launch a referendum effort.
March 28, 2013: Winkler rules the parking plan is susceptible to referendum and places a permanent hold on the plan, pending a possible vote in November. Following the ruling, Mayor Mark Mallory declares that anyone signing a petition against the parking plan is “laying off a cop or firefighter.”
April 19, 2013: The Hamilton County Board of Elections declares opponents of the parking plan have enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot in November.
May 30, 2013: City Council approves a budget without any layoffs to cop or firefighters by slashing other various city services and raising several fees and property taxes.
June 12, 2013: The Hamilton County Court of Appeals reverses the lower court’s ruling on the parking plan, making it insusceptible to referendum and eventually allowing the city and Port Authority to sign the lease.
June 20, 2013: The city receives a memo from Walker Parking Consultants criticizing the financial details of the lease. The memo specifically calls out Xerox for charging excessive management fees for operating Cincinnati’s parking meters.
July 10, 2013: The city administration alerts the Port Authority of the June 20 memo following questions about its existence from Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.
July 12, 2013: The city administration gives the full June 20 memo to the Port Authority.
July 15, 2013: City officials release June 20 memo alongside a letter from the Port Authority that criticizes the memo for using outdated information and making technical errors.