CINCINNATI - A plan to lease the city of Cincinnati's parking system to the Port Authority was a step closer to reality Monday, but a voter referendum against the measure now also is more likely.
City Council's Budget and Finance Committee voted 4-3 to recommend approval of the parking plan.
Before the vote occurred, however, the plan's opponents successfully divided the measure into two parts: The lease itself, and a separate ordinance to spend money on related expenses.
Earlier the city's lawyers had said because the plan was an appropriation ordinance – an item that allocated money – it couldn't legally be subject to a referendum by voters.
After Councilman Christopher Smitherman successfully pushed to separate the ordinance into two parts, that means the non-spending portion could go the ballot as a referendum and potentially be overturned.
The overall parking deal was supported by Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and Council Members Cecil Thomas, Yvette Simpson & Wendell Young, all Democrats.
Opponents were Democrat Chris Seelbach, Republican Charlie Winburn, and Smitherman who is an independent.
Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan abstained and Councilman P.G. Sittenfield was absent from the meeting; both are Democrats.
The full City Council will make a final decision at 2 p.m. Wednesday.
The proposal calls for leasing the city's parking meters for 30 years, and leasing the city's parking lots and garages for up to 50 years.
In return, the city would receive an upfront payment of $92 million from the Port Authority. Also, it would get annual payments that would begin at $3 million and gradually increase over time.
With the money, city administrators would cover a nearly $26 million deficit in the budget next year, and jumpstart several development projects around the city.
The projects include construction of a luxury apartment building and grocery at Fourth and Race streets downtown; and an interchange at Interstate 71 and Martin Luther King Drive in uptown.
Opponents – which include some small business owners – worry it will mean increases in parking meter rates and lessen public accountability for how the garages and meters are managed.
In fact, a memo given to City Council by City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. stated elected politicians are often reluctant to raise parking rates.
"ParkCincy's management of the city's parking assets is likely to generate substantially greater revenues than a city-run system," the memo stated.
"Put simply, the city's parking consultant reports that although cities do implement rate increases, a vast majority of municipalities do not have the political will to increase parking rates with regularity," it added.
But the number of parking meter tickets issued by the city has fallen sharply in recent years, causing critics to question whether it was done to justify leasing out the system.
Statistics show the city issued 104,026 tickets at meters in 2008; 90,873 in 2009; 78,642 in 2010; and 76,528 in 2011: and 64,857 last year.
That means more than 39,000 fewer tickets were issued in 2012 than just five years earlier.
Even if the parking deal is approved and withstands a voter referendum, it doesn't solve the city's budget problems.
Cincinnati is on track to have a $10 million deficit in 2014, a $15.5 million deficit in 2015 and a $20 million deficit in 2016.
The parking plan is the best option to close the shortfalls, Dohoney said, because the development projects would generate new tax dollars.
If income tax revenues grow at a rate 1 percent higher than current estimates over the next three years, the compounded effect would be an additional $15.1 million available by the end of 2016 to address the shortfalls.
"The point is that with time, the city could grow our way out of this budget problem by investing in our future now," Dohoney said.
Without the parking deal, city officials must identify $35.6 million in spending cuts or revenue enhancements in the next three months.
Also under the parking plan, three new garages would be built.
They are the 725-space Sycamore Garage; a renovation of the existing 525 spaces and the addition of 250 spaces at the Tower Place Garage; and the demolition and reconstruction of the 1,000-space Pogue's Garage at Fourth and Race.
Collectively, the development costs of the parking garages are more than $30 million, Dohoney said.
To read the CBC letter about the privatization of parking, go to http://goo.gl/BPhTG .
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