by Mick Dumke
Throughout his reelection campaign Mayor Rahm Emanuel has boasted that he reworked the infamous parking meter deal and saved the city $1 billion.
Most recently, he's turned the claim into an attack on Alderman Robert Fioretti, one of his challengers. Three times in the last two weeks Emanuel's reelection campaign has sent out mailers blasting Fioretti for opposing the mayor's "reform" of the meter agreement.
"If Fioretti had his way, the parking meter company would be keeping even more of our money," the ads declare.
It's an audacious statement, especially since Emanuel actually strengthened and expanded the meter deal. Records show that his 2013 "reform" gave the company control of additional parking spaces worth millions of dollars.
"It's beyond ironic that he's slamming Fioretti for this," says Alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd), a critic of the meter deal since it was introduced in 2008. "The mailers they're sending out are hilarious. I just hope people don't buy into them."
The saga started in 2008, when Emanuel's predecessor and ally Richard M. Daley convinced the City Council to lease the street parking system to private investors for 75 years. In return, the city would get $1 billion upfront.
Most aldermen never read the agreement, but that didn't stop them from approving it anyway by a 40-5 vote.
It turned out that the metered spaces were probably worth billions more than the city received. In addition, the city has to return some of the money to the private company, Chicago Parking Meters, every time officials take a metered spot out of commission for street repairs, festivals, traffic control, or any other reason.
Emanuel entered office in 2011 promising to look into retooling or even revoking the agreement. "The parking meter deal is particularly wrong," he said.
Instead he ordered city attorneys to join CPM in fighting a lawsuit that challenged the agreement—a move that ended up killing the suit.
The mayor also received donations from attorneys at Winston & Strawn, the powerful law firm representing CPM, at the same time his aides were negotiating with the company over disputed meter bills.
Still, in 2013 the mayor announced that his tough stance with CPM had yielded a new agreement that would save taxpayers big money. In exchange for longer meter hours, the company agreed to drop millions of dollars in claims. Emanuel declared that this would add up to as much as $1 billion in taxpayer savings over the next seven decades.
But the figure was based on fuzzy math and fuzzier logic.
Aldermen who wanted to know where Emanuel's guesstimate came from—and what calculations were exchanged with CPM during arbitration—were rebuffed. The mayor's aides said the information had to be kept private because of "attorney-client privilege," Waguespack says.
Nevertheless, it was clear to Waguespack, Fioretti, and their allies that the city wasn't off the hook under Emanuel's new deal.
Everyone was pleased that the company would lower a few bills for meter removals. But it had no plans to stop sending them in over the next seven decades. The total could end up being less than $1 billion—or more.
Plus, Emanuel's revised deal offered other sweeteners to the meter company. The extended hours would boost its revenues by $4 million to $9 million a year, Waguespack and the progressive caucus estimated, even after accounting for free Sunday parking in some areas.
Emanuel's aides disputed those figures. But they didn't say much at all about another change that will add to CPM's profits. Buried on page 57 of the 320-page agreement is a section that moved parking pay boxes from city to company control—176 of them in all. Each pay box can cover a half a block or more.
So by a conservative estimate, Emanuel privatized perhaps a thousand additional parking spaces, most of them in prime locations downtown. The revenues could add up to tens of millions of dollars for the meter company over the life of the deal.
In essence, Emanuel's revisions locked the deal in place and ensured that CPM will continue to rake in cash from Chicagoans, says Clint Krislov, the attorney behind the lawsuit challenging the deal. "They just transferred the costs from the city onto the backs of average people who park."
Even so, the council approved the new version of the deal by a 39-11 count. Waguespack was among the nay votes. So was Fioretti, who openly regretted voting for the original deal.
Now Emanuel is slamming Fioretti for both of his meter votes.
The alderman counters that Emanuel should have joined the suit fighting the meter agreement. "But he was protecting that deal for his Wall Street friends and banker buddies."
A spokeswoman for Emanuel said she wanted to respond but didn't have enough time to look into details of the mayor's meter deal—even though he's the one who brought it up.