Friday, January 16, 2009

A new lease on life for the pension funds ...

Several bloggers (,, ) are asking why Mayor Ravenstahl’s proposed plan to lease City garages, and possibly surface lots and parking meters, is a bad one. I have to say, Chicago has done it (I don’t know how successfully) and Harrisburg is in the process. Ravenstahl proposes using the revenue from the leases for our underfunded pensions. On paper this seems like a good idea.

Still, I can think of some issues/questions. First, if we are just looking for money to catch up our pensions with a big payment, why not sell the garages? The articles makes it sound like the new operator would pay the lease up front, and apparently this was done in Chicago (500 some million for a 99 year lease, maybe). Once they are leased, there might be some efficiencies in operation the new operator can achieve, but I think that would be limited. The operator would need to make more money than the City did, and since lots are usually pretty full on weekdays (at City and private lots, I gather), the new operator would likely just raise rates. I’m sure the justification would be that now that the lots are privately operated, they should reflect the rates of other private garages.

The problem with that is that I am sure the lower City rates currently exert a downward pressure on private parking rates. All rates would probably increase downtown, near Station Square and on the North Side by a couple of dollars for the whole day within a couple of years (more than they would have). This wouldn’t have a huge effect on downtown except that it would slow any new retail growth there. It is possible the Port Authority might increase their fares as well, leveraging the effect of the new parking rates. Downtown would become even more deserted at night.

The other thing I worry about is that Ravenstahl and his administration have already demonstrated their willingness to show favor to campaign donors. From Lamar to Club Pittsburgh, the Steelers to CLT Technologies, the City has given preference for City contracts to firms that are either politically connected or donate money. Might they do the same sort of thing with the City’s apparently valuable garages? What’s to stop them? City Council, which showed promise with the election of Kraus, Burgess and Dowd to ally themselves with Peduto and Shields, has instead taken itself off the field with it’s own bitter internal squabbles. The Ethics Bard is a joke, and the County and the State offer no recourse. Ravenstahl remains largely untouchable.

That’s why Ravenstahl’s proposal is troubling.

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