Cincinnati parking lease: Port Authority OKs contracts for private firms to manage meters, garages

New meter rates downtown effective Feb. 1

CINCINNATI -- After months of political debate and lawsuits, Cincinnati’s controversial parking lease is almost ready to be implemented.

In a special meeting Saturday morning, the Port Authority’s board of directors voted 7-0 to approve contracts with the two private firms that will oversee daily management of city-owned parking meters and garages.

Under the proposed terms, the firm that will operate the meters – Xerox State & Local Solutions Inc. – would get a total of $6.7 million during the first year.

The firm that would manage the parking garages – Denison Parking – would get $45,054 during the first year.

The Port Authority’s contract with Xerox is for 10 years, with a provision to extend it for up to two 10-year periods, for a total of 30 years.

The contract with Denison is for three years.

“The lease of the city’s parking system to the Port Authority is a good plan to enhance the system through professional management and technology,” said Port Authority Vice Chair Lynn Marmer.

Also, the Port Authority’s board OK’d an agreement to issue revenue bonds to finance the lease and operation of the parking assets.

Under the agreement, the city will be paid a total of $105 million over the lease’s term, with an upfront payment of $85 million.

Initially, the Port Authority planned on issuing $127.65 million in tax-exempt bonds to finance the deal, with the city getting a $92 million upfront payment.

Delays in the process and changing interest rates led to the lower amount.

City officials haven’t decided specifically how to use the cash, but have said they want to quicken the pace of several development projects, including the construction of an interchange at Interstate 71 and Martin Luther King Drive.

“This is all about economic development,” Marmer said.

For the first time, a clearer timetable for implementing the parking changes was discussed.

The bonds will be ready for issuance in mid-November, Port Authority officials said. Beginning Jan. 1, Denison will assume management of the city’s parking garages.

On Feb. 1 new expanded meter enforcement hours will take effect downtown.

Technological upgrades and new rates at meters will gradually occur after that time in individual neighborhoods, with Over-the-Rhine being the first area affected.

“Right now, we begin the transition period,” said Port Authority Spokeswoman Gail Paul, shortly after Saturday’s meeting.

The parking lease’s last hurdle likely will be decided Thursday, Oct. 24.

That’s when a court hearing will be held on a complaint filed by lease opponents that allege the deal has been significantly altered since it was approved by City Council in March.

As a result, opponents contend City Council must vote again on the latest version of the lease, a point disputed by the city’s attorneys.

City Council approved the parking lease in a 5-4 vote in March, just 15 days after the deal was presented to the group by the city manager.

The lease triggered several legal battles and has become a central issue in this year’s mayoral and City Council elections.

Originally, lease supporters said the deal was needed to balance the city’s budget and avoid hundreds of layoffs at City Hall, including police and firefighters.

As legal challenges dragged on through spring, however, city officials managed to pass a balanced budget for Fiscal Year 2014 without the lease revenues or making any layoffs.

Lease supporters have said the deal will provide cash to let the city jumpstart projects that will expand its tax base and attract new jobs.

Opponents, however, said the lease would lessen direct public control over the meters. Also, it would cause rate increases and aggressive enforcement that might drive away customers from small businesses, they added.

Port Authority Board Member Rick Greiwe said the lease would ultimately be good for businesses.

After technological upgrades are made to meters, motorists will be able to use their smartphones to  locate open parking spaces.

“The technology will guide you where parking spaces are available,” Greiwe said. “When people can park easier, business is good.”

About the final deal approved Saturday, Port Authority CEO Laura Brunner said: "The overall transaction structure remains as originally contemplated," but she added some details are “significantly improved.”

Those include shorter enforcement hours at neighborhood meters and a shorter duration for the lease.

Lease opponents cite the city’s changing rationale for the deal as why it should be slowed or stopped.

After the city budget was balanced without the parking cash, a majority of City Council members said they wanted to reconsider the deal from scratch.

The majority consists of Laure Quinlivan, who voted to OK the lease in March, along with opponents Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld, Christopher Smitherman and Charlie Winburn.

But Mayor Mark Mallory and Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who leads City Council’s finance committee, have blocked efforts to bring the matter back before the group for a discussion.

Marmer said

the way the parking deal was unveiled publicly caused problems, and that both city officials and Port Authority have learned from the process.

“Part of what probably hurt this was there was an early anticipation of how this money was going to be used and that changed,” Marmer said. “That hurt the credibility.”

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