Dowd steers council to spot in parking debate

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While others have roles in Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's plan to privatize city parking garages, City Council has been like a driver circling a packed lot wondering if there's a space left.

Consultants, Parking Authority board members, the pension board and the state all have found spaces. Today, Councilman Patrick Dowd plans to introduce legislation that would squeeze the city's nine-member legislative body into the discussion.

Mr. Dowd's legislation would give council 60 days to review and approve any bid to lease garages, lots or metered spaces if the proceeds are to benefit the city. It would bring an issue that has advanced largely without formal public comment into the city's political center ring.

"This is a way for us to have a role in the conversation and help shape what will be the most important public policy decision of 2010," said Mr. Dowd, who is skeptical about the lease plan.

"That discussion must be public. It must be robust," he said. "It must consider any alternatives that might be available."

Yarone Zober, Mr. Ravenstahl's chief of staff, said the decision to lease the garages, and a related effort to raise new revenue to bolster the pension fund long-term, could make the city "financially healthy for years to come."

"We are two decision points away from solving those problems forever, and this mayor is the one making those decisions."

That said, council won't be "left out of the transaction," he said.

Mr. Ravenstahl has said that a garage and meter lease is the best way to raise money for the pension fund, which at last count held less than one-third of the $899 million it should contain to cover its obligations. He has said that a lease deal that nets $200 million, combined with higher-than-required payments into the fund over several decades, would lead to a healthy balance.

The General Assembly gave him the go-ahead last month, when it exempted Pittsburgh for two years from a plan to have the state take over troubled municipal pension pools. The legislation also allows the city to boost its parking tax from 37.5 percent to 40 percent if it leases garages.

Also last month, Chicago-based consultant Scott Balice Strategies told the Parking Authority board that a lease as long as 50 years could net $200 million. The board voted to seek a lease adviser, and last week the authority invited financial firms to send in proposals. The winning firm would help make a deal with a lessee.

Helping to choose the adviser is a panel including Parking Authority Executive Director David Onorato, authority board member Michael Jasper, Mr. Zober, city Finance Director Scott Kunka and attorney Fred Frank. Mr. Kunka is also director of the pension fund board, and Mr. Frank is that board's solicitor.

There's no council member on the panel. And though the city charter requires a council member on every city-related authority board, there's none on the Parking Authority's five-seat board, despite one vacancy.

City Controller Michael Lamb said it normally wouldn't be council's job to approve an authority action, but the lack of council representation on the Parking Authority board may justify intervention.

Mr. Dowd noted that the city owns the street meters, and council must approve changes in street parking rates. Whoever leases the garages and meters will likely want to raise rates.

"I think that there are many issues that need to be looked at," said Council Finance Chair William Peduto. "Mainly, what is the real value of the garages, and what are the hidden costs to the public that as of this date have not been disclosed?"

Chicago has been a leader in privatizing lots and garages, and that city's inspector general in June criticized the fast-tracking of the agreement to lease street meters. That $1.16 billion lease deal was unveiled on Dec. 2 and council approved it two days later, by a 40-5 vote. The inspector general's report estimated that the city got nearly $1 billion less than the true value of the meters.

In Chicago, the deal allowed for prompt meter rate hikes ranging from 16 percent to 300 percent, and more boosts every year.

"Will the meter rates [in Pittsburgh] go up four times?" Mr. Dowd asked. "It affects the daily lives of citizenry and visitors."

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542.


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