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Mayor rejects parking company’s bill for disability parking

An official Illinois handicapped parking placard. | Source: State Illinois

An official Illinois handicapped parking placard. | Source: State of Illinois

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Updated: January 31, 2012 9:53PM

If Mayor Rahm Emanuel was looking to score political points using Chicago’s widely despised parking-meter lease, he’s found a platform in Chicago Parking Meters LLC’s demand for $13.5 million in compensation for motorists’ use of disability placards and license plates to park for free.

“I just don’t write blank checks to companies that say that’s what we owe. I’m gonna be the taxpayer watchdog,” the mayor said Tuesday. “Now, they may say that’s what we owe. But, just because they submit it doesn’t mean that’s what we’re gonna pay. We’re contesting that right now in a series of discussions with the company.”

Whether the issue might end up in court is unclear. An Emanuel spokeswoman said that the city has come up with an estimate that’s “significantly less” than $13.5 million. But both the city and parking-meter company have refused to discuss the negotiations further.

The Sun-Times disclosed this week that the company that paid $1.15 billion to collect all revenue from the city’s 36,000 metered spots for 75 years added to the city’s financial pains by sending the $13.5 million bill.

The parking-meter lease had become a hot-button issue in this year’s mayoral race, with candidates Miguel Del Valle and Carol Moseley Braun each telling voters they’d demand the deal be renegotiated should they be elected.

For now, Emanuel isn’t going that far.

The $13.5 million bill is designed to cover revenue lost during the one-year period ending on Feb. 28 to people who used disability placards and plates to avoid feeding meters. The parking-meter company didn’t gauge how many of those drivers were legitimately disabled, though its surveys have city officials convinced that able-bodied drivers using other people’s placards — or using fake or expired ones — played a major role in the bill being so high.

Using a formula outlined in the 521-page meter deal championed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago Parking Meters calculated that drivers who displayed disabled-parking placards and plates got $17.9 million worth of free parking for the yearlong period.

The formula calls for the company to absorb some of that cost, based on a percentage of its annual revenues. But, for 2010-2011, the formula capped the level of free disability parking that the company had to provide at $4.4 million — with the city’s taxpayers left to pick up the difference, records show.

On Wednesday, the full City Council is expected to sign off on Emanuel’s plan to crack down on disabled-parking fraud. It calls for able-bodied drivers who use fraudulent placards — or use a disabled person’s placard without that person present — to have their cars impounded and face thousands of dollars in fines and fees if caught by the police.

“Those who are violating what should be a protection for people with disabilities, we’re gonna crack down on that. Raise the fees, raise the penalties as an act of deterrence,” the mayor said.

State law long has allowed disabled people to park free all day in metered spots — a benefit that dates to when public transportation wasn’t handicapped-accessible and meters had to be fed with coins and fed again when the time ran out.

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