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Brown: Too early to tell just how little settlement improves parking meter deal

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Rahm Emanuel has been saying since he was a candidate for mayor that if elected he would do what he could to make the city’s hated parking meter privatization deal better for its residents.

As I always suspected, there wasn’t much he could do.

Despite his best efforts to put a favorable spin on matters, a settlement announced Monday by Emanuel does nothing to improve upon the most unpopular features of the city’s contract with Chicago Parking Meters LLC.

Those high parking meter rates aren’t coming down and will only continue to go up in the future.

The $1.2 billion that the city was paid in return for giving up the rights to collect the parking meter revenue for 75 years is still spent and not coming back.

It was a bad deal, but we’re stuck with it, sorry to say, and anyone who tells you different is either fooling themselves or trying to fool you. Unfortunately, you can’t challenge a binding contract on the basis of political malpractice.

Whether you like Emanuel’s “improvements” to Richard M. Daley’s original contract will depend a lot on when and where you use city parking meters.

If you want to use metered parking on a Sunday in the city’s neighborhoods, the new deal is good for you. If you’re more likely to park at a meter at night, then the city is going to be squeezing even more money out of you than it already is.

In striking a deal with Chicago Parking Meters over additional revenue claims by the company, the Emanuel Administration told reporters the contract was even worse than most of us knew — exposing taxpayers to an additional $1 billion in potential liabilities.

It’s that $1 billion that Emanuel now says he saved taxpayers by convincing the parking-meter company to accept the city’s formula for compensating it for parking spaces taken out of service. That’s at a rate of $20 million a year over the life of the contract.

I very much doubt that Chicago Parking Meters expects now to lose out on a billion dollars it was legitimately owed, but it could be months or even years before the company gives us its own unvarnished view of the settlement.

If there’s one thing we should have learned from the original parking meter debacle, it’s that nobody should make up their mind that this settlement was a good deal before they’ve had a chance to read and digest the actual written agreement.

The mayor’s office did not make the settlement documents available to reporters Monday, promising to do so only sometime before the next City Council meeting on May 8.

Just the same, there was nothing clearly objectionable in the details provided by Emanuel and his team. It’s mostly a wash.

In trading Sunday parking meter revenues beyond the downtown area for an additional hour at night (three extra hours in River North and Streeterville), the mayor simply made his own draw about whose ox gets gored. Better to charge young suburbanites out on the town at night than Sunday churchgoers, or so goes the thinking.

Free parking on Sundays is certainly something he can sell in a re-election campaign.

After trying to dispute the charges, however, the city was forced to concede that it owed Chicago Parking Meters nearly $55 million for meters used for free by individuals with disabled parking placards after an arbitration panel ruled against the city.

Those losses will be ongoing until the state switches in 2014 to a more restrictive disabled parking program to reduce rampant fraud by those seeking to park downtown for free. Even then, Chicago Parking Meters won’t lose out, because it will just collect the parking revenue directly instead of having to bill the city.

The Emanuel administration argues the money to be paid on the disabled parking dispute is dwarfed by the $20 million a year savings from the agreement on how to calculate what the city owes when a parking space is taken out of service by street closings and such.

They would prefer that we state this projected $1 billion savings over the life of the contract as fact, but I just don’t have enough information at this point to do that.

Instead of the three days the City Council was given to digest Daley’s parking deal, Emanuel is giving aldermen 30 days to review his.

They’d better get out their magnifying glasses this time.

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