Divided Pittsburgh council delays evening parking meter enforcement
December 19, 2012 10:00 AM
Pat Erhardt of Clairton pays for on-street parking Downtown.
By Joe Smydo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh City Council's preliminary vote to forego nighttime parking meter enforcement through June 30 was the backdrop Tuesday for a rancorous debate about Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's leadership, Councilman Bill Peduto's political aspirations and Councilman Ricky Burgess' claim to advocate for poor residents.
Mr. Peduto two weeks ago introduced legislation to roll back a 2011 law that, come Jan. 2, would extend enforcement of on-street meters until 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday in seven neighborhoods: Downtown; on the North Shore and South Side; and in Oakland, Shadyside, the Strip District and Squirrel Hill. On-street meters now are enforced 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week citywide.
In a compromise, council took a preliminary vote Tuesday to keep the citywide enforcement cutoff at 6 p.m. through June 30. A final vote is scheduled for next week.
At times Tuesday, the debate over parking enforcement seemed a subplot to larger political dramas.
Mr. Peduto said he introduced the bill to protect small businesses, which claimed that longer enforcement would drive customers to the suburbs. He encountered resistance from colleagues who accused him of politicking, shilling for the wealthy and backpedaling on a complicated pension bailout that called for new meter revenues.
Mr. Burgess said foregoing the expanded enforcement would cost the city $1.2 million annually in meter revenue and fines -- money he said could be spent to expand summer employment for poor city youths.
"This is a $1.2 million giveaway to the richest communities in the city of Pittsburgh," Mr. Burgess said, asserting that one complaint about nighttime enforcement came from a jewelry store where some wealthy customers drop enough money to feed a family of four.
Noting Mr. Peduto's past support for developer tax incentives, Mr. Burgess said his colleague's push against nighttime parking enforcement is part of a campaign "to reward the rich and punish the poor."
Mr. Burgess, an ally of Mr. Ravenstahl, noted that Mr. Peduto's move against nighttime parking enforcement came days before he announced his mayoral campaign. In another jab at Mr. Peduto's aspirations, council President Darlene Harris said her efforts to raise revenue through a billboard tax and other measures will mean little "if we just keep giving it away during elections."
"It is not being financially responsible," Mrs. Harris said.
On New Year's Eve 2010, council passed a bailout that averted a state takeover of the pension fund. The bailout tapped more than $735 million in parking tax revenues over 31 years and left a perennial hole in the general fund that council hoped to fill partly with higher meter and fine revenue.
Meter rate increases and expanded enforcement in the seven neighborhoods took effect in summer 2011, but council suspended the nighttime enforcement until January 2013 amid public complaints and disagreements with the parking authority over revenue-sharing and the pace of a meter modernization program.
The city owns the meters, but the parking authority operates them and keeps more than 90 percent of meter revenue. The city keeps more than 90 percent of fine revenue and gets $2.6 million in subsidies from the authority.
In passing the bailout, council members expressed a desire to begin taking a higher percentage of meter revenue, a concession that the parking authority hasn't been willing to make.
Until the authority turns over more meter revenue, Mr. Peduto said, "we're not helping anybody." While Mr. Burgess and Mrs. Harris accused him of backtracking on terms of the pension bailout, Mr. Peduto contends that it's actually the parking authority playing the role of spoiler.
Mr. Ravenstahl also bears part of the blame, Councilman Patrick Dowd said, claiming the mayor has declined to use his influence with the parking authority to leverage a higher percentage of meter revenue for the city.
"We set the policy, and it is not being implemented," Mr. Dowd said, recalling that Mr. Ravenstahl lost his own bid to save the pension fund by leasing parking garages and meters to private investors and "couldn't stomach the idea that his own plan couldn't get done."
In past weeks, Mr. Dowd has accused the mayor of various managerial shortcomings.
"He seems to be angry about a great many things recently. He usually gets that way around election time," said Yarone Zober, the mayor's chief of staff.
Mr. Dowd told Mr. Burgess, who represents troubled East End neighborhoods, that he does not have a "monopoly" on representing the city's poor and cautioned him against wielding that constituency "as a hammer."