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Top 9 Of '09 - No. 3: The Parking-Meter-Budget-Crunch-Recession Blues

By Marcus Gilmer in News on Dec 30, 2009 7:20PM

This week, we're counting down the top 9 stories of 2009 according to the Chicagoist staff.

Like all of our top four stories of 2009, this one is a hold-over from last year. We talked at length both last year and this year about the city's historic budget crunch, something cities all over the globe were facing, mired in the worst economic recession in many generations. But the battle over the budget had a different tone this year for two reasons: the 2016 Olympic bid (more on that tomorrow) and the now-infamous parking meter lease. When the parking meter lease was whisked through by Mayor Daley last December, it raised plenty of eyebrows. But it wasn't until early 2009 that some of the realities of the sale were brought to light and aspects of the lease had us seeing "FAIL."

The year started with a delay in the new rates as the private company in charge of switching over the new parking meters - LAZ Parking - fell behind schedule and we became familiar with the FAIL meters. We were up in arms over the higher rates and getting the meters to actually work, even turning back to the past to see how this new switch compared to previous meter debates. But that was nothing compared to the anger we felt when, in the spring, the Reader's Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky uncovered the real clusterfuck behind the meter lease: the city got hosed. The report was later confirmed by the city's Inspector General who estimated the City leased the meters at only half of the potential rate; had they been a little more vigilant, the meters could have been leased for over $2 billion instead of the $1.15 billion number the City agreed to.

After the Reader's report, all hell broke loose. Suddenly, the City Council was calling for blood and calling for hearings on the lease - even though only five aldermen voted against the original deal (for fun, they were: Toni Preckwinkle (4th), Leslie Hairston (5th), Billy Ocasio (26th), Scott Waguespack (32nd) and Rey Colon (35th)). This even after Ald. Dick Mell (33rd) had said during the original vote on the lease, "How many of us read the stuff we do get, OK?. I try to. I try to. I try to. But being realistic, being realistic, it's like getting your insurance policy. It's small print, OK?" With all this outrage came another fun side-story as the meters continued to malfunction (again and again). And what came of the City Council's hearing on the matter? Not a whole helluva lot. We admit even we blew our stack on the matter, not that we were alone.

So what does this all have to do with the city's budget?

2009_12_30_meter_08.jpg This summer, the City began using money from the deal to cover this year's budget gap. And then, following the 2016 bid failure, attention turned towards 2010's budget and how Mayor Daley planned to fill a growing hole as speculation mounted in regards to the next potential asset the City might sell off. Daley's solution to covering the debt? Using more parking meter deal money, so much that there's now concern there won't be any left within the next few years. Said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), "If the parking meter money is depleted within five years, then what happens for the next 70 years of that contract?" Daley's budget still passed despit some aldermanic dissent, only 12 alderman voting no (a mere speed-bump for the mayor). Ald. Waguespack was the only alderman to vote against both the original meter lease deal and Daley's '10 budget.

This leaves the city with a good chunk of that money already spent and 74 years left on the lease. Per the Trib:

Under the budget, only $130 million of a $400 million fund that was supposed to earn interest for the life of the 75-year lease would be left. Daley says he’ll restore the remaining $270 million when times get better.

And we're not done with the increase in hourly rates across the city. They go up again January 1, 2010 and will continue to increase every year through 2013.


Previously: No. 9 - Abbate Case Resolved; No. 8 - Rick Bayless Goes Supernova; No. 7 - Oprah, Oprah, Oprah; No. 6: Should We Talk About The Media?; No. 5 - The Beating Death of Derrion Albert; No. 4 - The Blago Saga Continues