Mayor John Cranley on Feb. 12 officially unveiled his plan for Cincinnati’s parking meters, lots and garages, providing the first possible replacement for the parking privatization plan that Cranley and the newly elected City Council effectively killed in November.
Cranley says the major goal of his plan, which is based on a memo from Walker Parking Consultants, is to retain City Council’s control of the city’s parking assets. The parking privatization plan, passed by council last March, attempted to cede control of the system to the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority and various private operators from around the country.
Giving up public control made the privatization plan a nonstarter for Cranley and other opponents. The opposition gathered nearly 20,000 signatures to put the privatization scheme on the ballot before courts ruled that an emergency clause attached to the plan made it insusceptible to referendum.
With his plan scheduled for City Council’s Feb. 24 Neighborhood Committee meeting, Cranley hopes to avoid the public controversy that followed the privatization plan and still leverage the city’s parking assets to help fix the operating budget gap.
There are some similarities between the two plans. Sundays and holidays remain free under both proposals. In the two plans, meters that currently provide 10 free minutes change so anyone who parks and pays for more than 10 minutes effectively forfeits his or her free time.
But the plans are different in a few respects, starting with which governing body adjusts parking rates and enforcement hours for the city’s parking meters.
Control over parking meter rates and hours
• Cranley’s plan: City Council keeps control of setting parking rates and enforcement hours.
• Privatization plan: An advisory board, made up of four Port Authority appointees and one city appointee, would set rates and hours. The city manager could veto changes. Rates and hours would need to satisfy lease and bond agreements.
More than anything, Cranley highlights local control as the major advantage to his plan.
Although the parking privatization plan gave some control to the city manager, Cranley feared private operators’ for-profit goals would eventually trump the public’s interests. Since voters would not elect the city manager or advisory board, the privatization plan was effectively insulated from public opposition.
• Cranley’s plan: Net parking meter revenues increase from roughly $3 million a year to about $6 million in the next budget year and more than $7 million by fiscal year 2017, according to Walker Parking Consultants. Net garage revenues remain around $2 million per year.
• Privatization plan: The city would give up $3 million in net annual parking meter revenues and $2 million in net annual garage revenues. In return, it would receive an $85 million lump sum and tentative annual installments of $3 million. The installments would come only after the Port Authority paid for expenses tied to the lease agreement, such as costly garage upgrades and repairs.
For supporters of the privatization plan, the financial aspect is the big loser of Cranley’s proposal. The former city administration hoped to use the lump sum to help pay for the operating budget, pension and development projects around the city. Without the lump sum, the city needs to find other revenue sources for those programs.
On the other side, Cranley characterizes the lump sum as “stealing from the future.” He argues the lump sum took annual revenues from future city administrations and instead spent them all at once.
Parking meter rates
• Cranley’s plan: Downtown rates remain $2 an hour for the next five years. Neighborhood rates rise from 50 cents to 75 cents an hour.
• Privatization plan: Over the 30-year lease, downtown parking meter rates would increase by 25 cents every three years, and neighborhood rates would increase by 25 cents every six years.
Parking meter hours
• Cranley’s plan: Hours remain the same as today.
• Privatization plan: In Over-the-Rhine and parts of downtown, parking meter enforcement hours would expand to 8 a.m.-9 p.m., from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. today. Other neighborhoods would remain the same.
Cranley’s plan originally extended hours around downtown, Over-the-Rhine, the University of Cincinnati and Short Vine in Corryville. But opposition from UC students and City Council torpedoed the proposal. To Cranley, the change shows why parking assets need to remain in public hands.
“That underscores the primary point of (my) parking plan, which is that we can be responsive to local concerns,” Cranley says. “I think that is going to be a classic case of how this is supposed to work.”
Since Walker Parking Consultants’ revenue estimates assumed enforcement hours would expand around UC, pulling back on the plan will likely reduce overall revenues.
Parking meter enforcement
• Cranley’s plan: The amount of enforcement officers on the city’s payroll will increase from five to 15. Parking meter fines stay at $45.
• Privatization plan: The Port Authority’s plan tentatively called for 16 enforcement and collections employees in the first year, 19 in the second year and 21 from the third year on. Parking meter fines would increase to $60 in the fourth year of the 30-year lease and increase by 3 percent each year after that.
According to Walker Parking Consultants’ memo, Cincinnati’s enforcement is so poor right now that in most of the city, including major hubs like the University of Cincinnati and Over-the-Rhine, parking meters go unenforced for two to five hours every day.
Cincinnati’s enforcement officers also fall slightly below the industry median for productivity, according to Walker.
To help remedy the issues, Walker suggests hiring officers and setting a benchmark of 25-30 citations per day for each full-time officer.
Parking meter upgrades
• Cranley’s plan: The city will upgrade all meters to accept credit card payments. The new technology will also include the potential to accept payments through smartphones, but it’s undecided whether City Council will enable the feature.
• Privatization plan: The Port Authority planned to upgrade all meters to accept credit card and smartphone payments.
Smartphone capability is a double-edged sword: It introduces its own set of costs, including shorter battery life for meters. It also allows customers to avoid under- and overpaying at parking meters, which decreases citation and meter revenues. But smartphone access also increases ease of use, which could lead to higher revenues by making it easier to pay.
Cranley cautions he’s not opposed to smartphone capabilities, but he says it’s up to council to decide whether the feature makes it into the final plan.
• Cranley’s plan: The Port Authority takes over the Fountain Square South Garage; the Port would cover all expenses for the garage, and any net revenues could be used on development projects within the city. Otherwise, the city remains on the hook for maintaining its garages — an estimated expense of roughly $8 million over five years, according to Walker Parking Consultants — and building a $14-$15 million garage at 7th and Broadway streets. The city keeps around $2 million in net garage revenues each year.
• Privatization plan: The Port Authority planned to take over and maintain the city’s garages through a private operator, but the city would remain on the hook for building the $14-$15 million garage at 7th and Broadway streets. In return, the city would give up net garage revenues for a lump sum and tentative annual payments.
Under state law, the city isn’t allowed to spend net revenues from parking garages on expenses outside the parking system. But the Port Authority is allowed to unlock excess revenues and use them on development projects. That’s why the privatization plan sought to give all of the city’s parking garages to the Port.
By Cranley’s admission, the current set-up is problematic for the city. Given the Port Authority’s refusal to take on garages besides the Fountain Square South Garage, Cranley says City Council will need to find other solutions to leverage garage revenues in the future. ©
This story was updated on Feb. 19 to reflect Mayor John Cranley’s decision to drop evening hours from his plan.