Harrisburg parking revenues pacing behind projections

Written by Emily Previti/Keystone Crossroads | Oct 20, 2015 4:53 AM
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Photo by Lindsay Lazarski/Keystone Crossroads

(Harrisburg) --Communities nationwide turn to privatizing services or asset sales to deal with pension, debt, budget and other financial issues.

Two of the largest in the Commonwealth were critical to city of Harrisburg's billion-dollar debt rescue. 

Harrisburg sold its incinerator and leased its parking system to get out of debt and avoid bankruptcy. 

Other Pennsylvania municipalities have since used and continue to consider similar financial fixes - if smaller-scale.

Chester and Allentown, for example, have tried sewer and wastewater treatment system leases. Allentown used the nearly $250 million to shore up the city's pension fund.

York and Scranton are two considering similar deals to pay what's been promised retired workers.

But in Harrisburg, things aren't going as well as hoped. 

Mayor Eric Papenfuse says parking, local tax and other revenues have generated about $6 million, combined, less than projected by the municipality's Act 47 recovery plan.

The city and its consultants will amend the plan, Papenfuse says.

Part problem involves the $287 million lease of the city's parking system by the state and private partners. 

Rates and enforcement jumped, in hopes of generating enough revenue to cover repayments on the debt issued to pay for the lease (the required revenue increase was an estimated 60 percent). 

Although parking got more expensive, it also became more convenient due to infrastructure and technology improvements like meters that accept credit cards, allow remote refreshing by phone  and payment through an app.

Operator SP Plus Municipal Services - a subsidiary of Standard Parking - has agreed to discounted rates during weekends and evenings (which the city's subsidized) and business owner validations.

But the system's behind where it's supposed to be.

Parking Advisory Board member John Gass says revenues are more than $1 million behind projections to the city, state, system maintenance fund and partners including system operator SP Plus Municipal Services. 

Papenfuse says it's more like $1 million less to the city, alone. 

That should be clearer tomorrow, when the Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority (the state's arm of the public-private partnership) is scheduled to review a system audit. Gass says he's not sure whether the document will be made public.

Pierre MaCoy, a hydrologist who's lived six years in Harrisburg's Uptown neighborhood, complained about the lack of transparency since the parking system switched hands. 

"They're supposed to make sure our garages are maintained, and according to the bond releases, they're not," MaCoy says. "They're supposed to have disclosure, audited financial statements, and they're not. So if they're going to enforce parking this strictly, then they have to enforce what the bond says, too. You can't go to the residents and say, 'If you have three unpaid tickets, we're going to boot your car,' and then turn around and say, 'Oh, I'm six months late for my disclosure for the bond.' I mean, it's that simple."

Residents more frequently bemoan the expense and relentless enforcement. 

But that will continue to grow next year, officials said during Monday's board meeting. 

Operators plan to get aggressive about booting cars tied to the more than 1,000 estimated outstanding warrants for failing to pay tickets, according to Gass. 

Gass says he's unsure whether the system will launch a payment plan, which Papenfuse says he'll advocate to make happen.

Published in Harrisburg, News

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