Cover Story: Bye bye PARKatlanta?
Parking enemy No. 1's days might be numbered, but questions remain about what should come next.Thursday April 28, 2016 04:00 am EDT
In late 2009, Atlanta encountered arguably its most unwelcome visitor since Sherman moseyed into town. It traveled in a white chariot of terror and was armed with electronic tablets spitting out pieces of paper demanding payment or a day in court. Even its name barked at you: PARKatlanta.
The private parking enforcer's seven-year contract officially comes to an end in late September. The contract's expiration may also signal the end of the city's experiment with outsourcing meter maids and the multimillion-dollar citation enterprise. Mayor Kasim Reed has said he does not foresee PARKatlanta getting a second shot at the job.
Before the city makes that call it must decide what it hopes to achieve with on-street parking enforcement. Is it just a means to raise revenue? Does the city want to price parking to encourage people to leave cars at home and walk, bike, or use transit instead? Does it want to make it easier to park in certain districts to attract people to specific neighborhoods? Or should it take a page from the playbook of retired UCLA Planning Professor Donald Shoup, a guru regarding parking's impact on cities, and put the cash people drop into meters to good use?
"On-street parking is such a huge, underutilized resource that needs to be focused on and treated as such," says Eric Kronberg, a principal at Reynoldstown architecture firm Kronberg Wall. Parking revenues could be directed back to business districts or neighborhoods to do cleanups, streetscape repairs, or even security patrols. What Kronberg calls "parking-benefit districts" could "make hated paid parking meters an appreciated funding stream for neighborhood infrastructure repair. We can't keep borrowing money to patch some things here and there through bonds."
Parking is more than just a place to stash cars — it's a complicated part of urban life that sometimes determines who gets access to public space. When parking is too restrictive, for instance, a business may seem less desirable to those who rely on cars. When it's free or too cheap, it could mean the business sees less customer turnover.
Free parking is never really free, either. A space in a parking deck can cost a developer $20,000, which is then folded into the price of housing. In the long run, plentiful parking can prevent people from using transit, bicycling, and walking, exacerbating the city's car culture.
But parking can also bring in millions of dollars. The decision to outsource on-street parking enforcement came during a time of desperation. In 2008, the cash-strapped city laid off most of its parking enforcement officers to balance its books during the Great Recession. For about a year, parking without paying was a game of chance with the odds in the driver's favor. City officials realized they were missing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in monthly revenue.
The city inked a deal with Duncan Solutions, a Milwaukee company that had managed parking enforcement in Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, and other cities. Under the seven-year agreement, Duncan, doing business as PARKatlanta, would pay Atlanta $5.5 million each year for the job of enforcing parking laws, writing tickets, and collecting revenue and fines.
For a city looking at deep budget cuts, the money made sense. But it was also a brilliant political move, says Matt Garbett, an Adair Park resident and rabble-rouser who's made a cause of shaking Atlanta out of its parking addiction.
"The city realized they weren't collecting on this revenue," he says. "If they collected on the revenue they would be bad guys. By contracting out to a third party, PARKatlanta became bad guys. For a little bit, it was, 'Why did you sign this contract?' But the anger was at the enforcers. They were able to shift the anger. Now the city is the good guy for exploring new options."
The backlash was fierce. In areas where PARKatlanta had authority, shoppers, diners, and residents claimed they'd been wrongly cited and had to endure the headache of contesting a ticket in traffic court. Store and restaurant owners said PARKatlanta was scaring away business. Poor signage confused motorists. Bumper stickers started appearing on cars urging people to "Fire PARKatlanta." Lawsuits have been filed. Whispers about quotas and PARKatlanta PEOs — industry parlance for parking enforcement officers — getting notified when a meter expired and prompted to write a citation were rampant. A 2013 Central Atlanta Progress survey cited by the Urban Land Institute in a review of Atlanta's on-street parking program found people "very familiar with the company" scored it 3.74 out of 10.
Part of the pushback could be attributed to the theory that motorists in Atlanta, an urban city that suffers from some suburban habits, hate paying for parking. Just look at the backlash Atlantic Station and Ponce City Market faced when they announced shoppers and diners at the mixed-use developments had to pay to park.
"From all the people I've talked to over the years I've been talking about parking, it's something that people in this city view as a fundamental right," Garbett says. "People have two immutable opinions about parking: it should be free and no stranger should park in front of your house."
The company's tactics also left a sour taste. Residents over the years have complained about getting citations during the grace period before a meter expires as well as PARKatlanta vehicles pouncing when enforcement times begin in certain areas. Meters have accepted payment on free days, such as Sunday, and allowed drivers to buy parking past the enforcement time.
"Nobody wants to get parking tickets," says Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore. "Typically before PARKatlanta it was a hit-or-miss situation whether you would get a ticket. People weren't used to enforcement. And they weren't used to aggressive enforcement on top of that."
In some neighborhoods that are often overtaken on weekends by people parking on residential streets (some of which have resident-only on-street parking), the company has its admirers. Dana Persons, a Midtown resident who's seen Piedmont Park revelers crowd side streets and block driveways during festivals, says she thinks the PEOs have made life more bearable, though they've been overzealous at times.
The city also shares blame. Garbett and PARKatlanta Manager Anderson Moore like to point out that elected officials set the parking offenses and fines that have irked thousands. In 2012, the city responded to the public outcry and amended the PARKatlanta contract, accepting $200,000 less in return for an online complaint form, response to complaints within two days, and improved employee training.
OVER THE PAST FEW MONTHS, PARKatlanta execs have launched a charm offensive to dispel myths and respond to what they consider to be misperceptions about the service.
Above all PARKatlanta and its PEOs are not "predatory," company executives say, pinpointing the word that has been used by critics to describe PARKatlanta's approach. PEOs don't get pinged, Moore says, and they don't have quotas. And he notes it's not PARKatlanta writing tickets, it's minority-owned subcontractors the company is required to use per its contract. The company, however, could find new vendors if it's unsatisfied with their performance.
According to Moore, PARKatlanta only handles the back end of operations — payment processing, mailing citations, payroll, and other administrative tasks. The company wants to improve and has been efficient, he says. A 2014 report submitted to the city says the company has an error rate — citations that are reversed — of less than 1 percent, which is better than when the city wrote tickets. And he says it's writing fewer tickets than when the city managed parking.
"These are eyes and ears on the street," Moore says. "They're not incentivized to write any citations. They're trained to look at broken windows. In many cases we found children locked in vehicles, we found vehicles that were stolen, we found people with medical emergencies ... We're part of the fabric of the city of Atlanta. The job is difficult. We understand our employees have a very difficult job. But it must be done. And we're proud to do it." Atlanta Police Department Spokesperson Officer Kim Jones said she would have to check on Moore's claims. Atlanta Fire and Rescue Public Information Officer Cortez Stafford says no such incidences immediately came to mind but could not rule out them ever happening.
Contrary to what many think, Moore says PARKatlanta isn't making money hand over fist. It essentially starts every fiscal year $5.3 million in the red. Add in the $3.8 million in annual payments for subcontractors, citation envelopes, parking kiosk maintenance, and other costs, and the profit margin is slim. Moore says the program has not been a "cash cow for us." In some years there's been no profit, the company claims.
PARKatlanta won't say how much it's making. Moore says revealing that information could put the company at a disadvantage to others looking to undercut the firm when the contract comes up for renewal. The city won't say, either. Attempts to obtain reports from Reed's office that Moore says contain a trove of information and are submitted to the city each week, were unsuccessful. According to a December 2015 AJC article, PARKatlanta generated about $12.5 million a year in revenue the past four years. After payouts to the city and contractors — including booting and towing companies — among other expenses, the company was left with around $1.5 million.
Atlanta lawyer Eddie Key, who's considering filing a class-action suit against the company, says PARKatlanta employees have told him and his legal team that PEOs who write more citations are incentivized with better hours. He also thinks people who were cited as part of any incentivized program, especially last September, when he says PARKatlanta experienced a technology snafu, might have grounds for a suit.
"If the system is flawed you should be entitled to your money back at minimum," Key says.
Moore, speaking through a PARKatlanta spokeswoman, says employees are evaluated quarterly on accountability, productivity, dependability, and other measures. High scorers receive preferential routes and schedule choices. He said no PEOs have been fired for not issuing a citation. Moore did not directly address a malfunction in September but said the company "mitigates" issues when they arise with third-party vendors and voids citations when warranted.
Mike Boyle, a Virginia-Highland resident who's the parking police's most vocal critic, says predatory is an apt adjective for the company. On his website Boot PARKatlanta, Boyle has posted reams of data and jeremiads against the company. Boyle's chief complaint against outsourced enforcement is that it has ceded control of public streets and has had a chilling effect in business districts and neighborhoods, all for extra revenue.
"I think you have an unholy alliance here," he says. "You have policing for profit. There's an inherent conflict of interest. Either you're trying to maximize revenue or enforce the law. It's difficult to do both."
While on the campaign trail for a second and final term, Reed told Creative Loafing he thought it unlikely that PARKatlanta's contract would be renewed when it expired, saying "that will probably be my last gift to the people of Atlanta." At the time, buying out the contract would have cost an estimated $40 million, then-Councilman H. Lamar Willis, said at the time. Reed envisioned the city taking the reins on enforcement once again when the contract expired, which would lend more accountability to the process.
During the last half of 2015, city officials invited residents to several public meetings to vent their anger or, in a few cases, sing PARKatlanta's praises, and offer ideas about alternatives. (A PARKatlanta spokesperson says a company rep wasn't asked to sit on any of the panels.)
Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza told CL that he thinks the firm has done a "satisfactory" job, early hiccups aside, but there's an "opportunity to incorporate some improvements."
On April 27, Mendoza briefed the Atlanta City Council's transportation committee on last year's meetings and outlined different enforcement scenarios. During the public airing of grievances, Mendoza said, most of the public's complaints centered on aggressive enforcement, broken meters, and poor customer service.
A new contract would allow the city to consider adding some technological advances, such as smart parking that makes motorists more aware of available parking spaces. When the contract expires, the city could opt to outsource the service again, bring parking enforcement back under City Hall, or use a hybrid model enforced by the city but which contracts out some services, such as bookkeeping.
"All the options we're keeping open," Mendoza said.
Councilman Alex Wan, who represents Midtown and other areas where PARKatlanta enforces parking, was disappointed and said he "could have written this a year and a half ago." He noted that roughly five months remain until PARKatlanta's contract ends, giving the city little time to better explore potential parking-enforcement scenarios.
"i'm worried that we're now finding ourselves where we're going to default back into this contract, despite the fact we know all the flaws of this program and the public has vocally said what they want to see improved," Wan said.
He added: "Given we've burned so much of the time fuse, and perhaps that was by design, I'm concerned we're going to find ourselves repeating the follies and errors that we've been enduring since 2010."
What the next round of parking enforcement will look like is anyone's guess. In an October 2013 interview with WABE-FM, Reed said he envisioned the city potentially returning to in-house enforcement while partnering with a private company on the technology. The ULI study of Atlanta's on-street parking — which the nonprofit said had an "overall poor public perception" — recommended rebranding the system, adding more on-street spaces, especially in growing areas, and finding a technology partner that could create an app and install in-ground sensors to provide real-time updates about availability.
The city could just take ownership of the already installed kiosks — it's allowed to, per the PARKatlanta contract — and do everything itself. Or maybe, just maybe, PARKatlanta pitches such a sweet deal to the city that it ends up winning the contract yet again.
NOTE: On April 27, the city provided Mendoza's presentation about potential next steps involving on-street parking enforcement and Mendoza briefed the Council transportation committee. This article has been updated to include that information.