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Rahm Emanuel: Parking-meter battle is on

Mayor Rahm Emanuel presides over city council meeting this dealing with change ticketing people for  carrying small amounts pot.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel presides over the city council meeting that is dealing with a change to ticketing people for carrying small amounts of pot. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: August 3, 2012 6:12AM



The city of Chicago has been socked with some huge — and unexpected — bills from the company that runs the city’s now-privatized parking-meter system. Now, Mayor Rahm Emanuel says the city is fighting back — and it’s going to cost some money to do it.

Under the wildly unpopular deal that then-Mayor Richard M. Daley struck in 2008 to lease the city’s parking meters until the year 2084 in exchange for a one-time, upfront payment of $1.15 billion, the city’s taxpayers must reimburse Chicago Parking Meters LLC any time a meter can’t be used. Last year, the meter company says the street-closing tab came to $14 million.

Emanuel has refused to pay that bill. He’s also said no to another $35.5 million in bills the meter company submitted for reimbursement for two years of free parking that people with disabled-parking placards or disabled-parking license plates have gotten. Those with the placards or plates don’t have to pay to park.

“I do know the parking-meter management team now knows there’s a new sheriff in town,” Emanuel says. “Don’t send a bill just thinking we’re going to sign it. And don’t act like you’re in possession of information when the contract calls for something else. Those days are over.”

Emanuel has talked tough before on parking meters. But he says he’s doing more now than talk.

A key step: City Hall will spend more than $300,000 to develop computer software Emanuel says needs to be in place to fight the unforeseen bills stemming from the meter deal. Long-term, he says, the investment should pay off in savings.

The city also is going to do more to limit the time that metered parking spots are taken out of service for street repairs, utility work, festivals and other reasons, the mayor says.

People have called on Emanuel to try to break the meter deal — or at least to find a way to lower parking rates that have skyrocketed since the deal was signed.

But Emanuel says he’s focusing on reducing the $49.5 million in bills the meter company has submitted for reimbursement for street closings and disabled parking.

“It is a contract,” Emanuel says. “What do we have, 72 years left on it? That’s a long time for me to talk about. I’m not gonna be here that long.

“Let me say it this way. . . . I have the here-and-now I’ve got to manage, which was not being done. And I’m going to do it.”

So does he blame Daley for the extra costs stemming from the parking-meter deal? Emanuel won’t say. He also says he’s never discussed the meter deal with his predecessor.

“I don’t think anybody had any idea they had the right to submit bills like that — or that parts of the contract needed to start getting managed,” Emanuel says.

Communications between City Hall and the parking-meter company have grown testy in recent weeks, documents obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act show. The company has declined to comment on the disputes.

Still, Emanuel says City Hall has scored a victory: Its lawyers have convinced Chicago Parking Meters that the contract requires the city — not the company — to determine how much the city owes as a result of street closings. Until now, the meter company did those calculations.

“We should have had that information from them from Day 1, and we didn’t,” Emanuel says.

The city has hired Electronic Knowledge Interchange, a technology consulting firm founded by Robert Blackwell Jr., to develop software that can sort through more than 100 million parking transactions over the past three years to try to lower the bill the city owes Chicago Parking Meters. The software also will allow the city to calculate what it owes the meter company for meters taken out of service in the future, city officials say.

Emanuel also says he plans to limit the times parking meters get taken out of service by city street and water crews. He says he’ll also make sure that groups that request street closings for special events absorb the cost of meters that are taken out of service through their permit fees.

The city’s dispute with the meter company for one year’s worth of disabled-parking reimbursements is in arbitration.

Emanuel says he’s hopeful that legislation awaiting the signature of Gov. Pat Quinn will block Chicago Parking Meters from seeking future multimillion-dollar reimbursements for providing free parking to people who display handicapped-parking placards and plates.

A Sun-Times investigation last year spotted dozens of able-bodied people using relatives’ placards, deceased people’s placards, fake placards and stolen placards to cheat Chicago’s meter system and park for free. A subsequent Sun-Times report revealed that taxpayers are on the hook to reimburse the meter company for drivers who use disabled-parking placards or plates to park free.

Illinois law has allowed disabled drivers to park for free in metered zones for decades. The legislation awaiting Quinn’s signature would change that beginning in 2014, allowing only wheelchair-users and other severely disabled people to park for free in metered spots. That will “absolutely” cut the amount of free parking the meter company must provide, Emanuel says.

Still, the city plans to continue stings to catch disabled-parking cheaters.

“The abusers ruin the whole system, so we have to police it better,” he says.



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