While the city is strapped for cash, the private parking meter company makes millions of dollars more



Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he reformed the parking meter deal, but city drivers continue to pay millions of dollars a month to the private meter company.
  • Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media
  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he "reformed" the parking meter deal, but city drivers continue to pay millions of dollars a month to the private meter company.
As Mayor Rahm Emanuel searches for money to cope with the city's grave financial health, the private firm that controls Chicago's parking meter system collected another $131 million from city drivers in 2014 to wrap up its most lucrative year yet, according to a financial audit posted Tuesday on the city's website.

Chicago Parking Meters LLC has now hauled in $633 million in revenues since it took over the street parking system six years ago, audits show. That's more than half the $1.2 billion the firm paid the city for the system, and CPM gets to keep the meter revenues for 69 more years.

During his recent reelection campaign, Emanuel boasted that he had negotiated a "reform" of the deal in 2013 to save taxpayers $1 billion over the next seven decades. "I made lemonade out of a lemon," he said.

But the claim was based on sunny projections and dubious math, and the new report confirms that CPM isn't going to lose much if anything from the mayor's tweaks.

While 2014 revenues from the meter system dipped by about $5 million from the year before, the settlement with the city helped CPM boost its net operating income to almost $45 million, the highest since it bought the meters.

In short, the private company came away with more money than ever before.

Plus, CPM's income stream last year included $6.5 million in direct payments from the city as penalties for taking meters out of commission. That means taxpayers still have to compensate CPM every time the city needs to shut down a meter for street repairs, festivals, summits, traffic flow, or any other reason.

The mayor says he shaved the future cost of these "true-up" payments by forcing CPM to change the way they're calculated. But the audits confirm that the annual true-up bills may exceed the $4.5 million that Emanuel's aides used in their estimates—and which he touted as fact in his reelection ads.

CPM's agreement with Emanuel also gave the company control of hundreds more metered spaces than it had originally.

In case you've forced yourself to forget how the city ended up in this fix, the tale started in 2008, when former mayor Richard M. Daley quietly negotiated the meter selloff behind closed doors, then rammed it through the City Council in two days. Even mayoral loyalists objected to the speed of the rubber-stamping, but aldermen approved the deal anyway by a 40-5 vote.

Officials and the public have been learning the consequences ever since.

Even before he was elected, Emanuel criticized the deal and promised to look into nixing or fixing it. Once in office he railed against the parking meter company, whom he essentially accused of shaking down the city with exorbitant true-up bills.

At the same time, the mayor had city attorneys fight in court to keep the deal in place, and CPM's law firm, Winston & Strawn, held a fund-raiser for Emanuel's reelection campaign, which eventually raked in $26 million.

Some of that money went into mailers that portrayed Emanuel as a reformer willing to take on the status quo, including the parking meter company.

The meter deal remained an albatross for candidates down to the ward level. In the Second Ward—which was redrawn and moved miles away to make life harder for incumbent alderman Bob Fioretti, who joined the mayoral race instead—the top two candidates battled to portray themselves as fiercer critics of the meter deal.

The eventual winner, Brian Hopkins, even ran a TV ad blasting opponent Alyx Pattison for working for the law firm that drew up the contract. Of course, Hopkins worked for years for Richard Daley's brother, county commissioner John Daley, and accepted campaign contributions from several of the former mayor's aides. Yet Hopkins promised to be independent and won in the runoff.

Adding it all up, the number of elected officials opposed to the meter deal keeps going up—yet the money flowing to the meter company does too.

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