Can Tulsa earn more parking meter revenue than Oklahoma City?
That is what's expected in a proposal to privatize parking meter management though a long-term agreement with Tulsa-based American Parking.
Numbers have not been finalized, with the general concept having the support of Mayor Dewey Bartlett but still requiring City Council approval to raise meter rates in portions of downtown. A first reading of the plan could go before the city council as soon as Jan. 24. Most often, the council doesn't vote to decide an issue until a second reading.
Already, one large change has come to a draft proposal first presented in a November public forum. The revised proposal does not call for parking meters to return to Cherry Street, said Mike Brink, a consultant working for the city.
Originally, the city included 109 auto meter spaces on Cherry Street in projections of approximately $715,000 in meter revenue -- a more than 215 percent increase from meter revenue earned in the city's 2012 fiscal year, when $225,000 was collected from meters.
Subtracting out the Cherry Street meters would reduce the projected revenue. But, by comparison, Oklahoma City took in about $547,000 during the 12-month period ending in June, from approximately 1,500 meters. Tulsa would have about the same number of metered spaces under the proposal.
Brink pointed out that while Tulsa parking meter revenue has slid in recent years, it reached about $370,000 in fiscal year 2004.
The deal is structured so that American Parking would pay to repair broken meters and install meters in spaces designated as having meters but lacking the equipment. The net result would be about 300 downtown spaces with meters that currently are not metered.
American Parking, which also operates more than two dozen parking lots in Tulsa, would receive the first $509,000 in gross revenues yearly, according to Brink. While local government manages parking meters in Oklahoma City, such a deal is not uncommon nationally, according to Julie Dixon, a California-based parking consultant who works with municipalities.
"It's like the city's having their equipment financed, is almost the way to look at it," Dixon said.
While Dixon said a projected tripling of revenue would make her "nervous," she was quick to say that it's impossible to evaluate the revenue projections without examining parking conditions in detail.
Such jumps may not be unprecedented. In Indianapolis, a parking privatization initiative helped parking-related revenue jump from about $600,000 annually to an estimated $1.4 million in 2011, though city officials could not provide details about how much of the revenue came from citations compared to meters.
Dixon said a good deal depends on how it's structured.
"If the city wrote a good contract, then the vendor's taking the risk. Anytime you're talking about a concession, you want the vendor to take the risk. That's something that should be really evident in the contract, that the vendor is taking the risk," Dixon said.
On top of the initial share of gross revenues, American Parking would receive 5 percent of additional gross revenues, though Brink said there may be a cap on total payments to American Parking.
In a Jan. 17 City Council committee meeting, Councilor Jeannie Cue asked Brink if the city would have to pay American Parking $509,000 even if revenues didn't match projections.
"The proposed contract that's being negotiated with them would pay them $509,000 in revenues," Brink answered, adding that the city would be able to monitor revenues to see they are reaching expectations.
"If for some reason it's not, the city always has the ability to terminate the contract," Brink told city councilors.
In an interview, Brink said that even if not all the meter revenue comes in as projected, the city can still have a functioning meter system.
"We're expecting, even if our revenue estimates are off by $200,000, to still have significant revenue to be able to pay them and take care of the enforcement piece. There's significant margin for error," Brink said.
The proposed deal and the city's handling of downtown parking have a fierce critic in Kent Morlan, a downtown property owner.
The city has stressed that the changes mainly are needed to repair a neglected system. While there would be more meters and also higher rates in some parts of downtown -- notably, meter rates would be boosted to $2 an hour in a small area of about four blocks known as the financial district -- the city has said the change will keep traffic circulating downtown and thus promote economic development.
Morlan, however, noted that downtown went without meters not so many years ago.
"The place worked essentially just as it does now," Morlan said. He once led a petition effort to keep meters from being reinstalled.
"The city has never ever had the resources or applied the resources to the parking process to manage the parking spaces, never have done it, not in my entire life of working in downtown Tulsa," Morlan said.
He said many spaces that currently have meters now are widely unused. Increasing rates will simply keep people away from downtown, he said, noting that, if he's right, that would be a flaw in revenue projections which would seem to imply no drop-off in downtown visitors.
"What it really amounts to is, it's like the city is running the downtown parking system without paying any attention to how it's being used. They're wanting to charge people to park in places where they won't pay for it, and then they don't enforce the two-hour limit on places where people do want to park," Morlan said.
He also questioned the city's proposal for the agreement to be reached between the Tulsa Parking Authority, a public trust, and American Parking. Morlan, an attorney who unsuccessfully sued the city because of ballpark assessment fees imposed on downtown property owners, said he thinks the proposed deal could also be illegal in how it handles payment to American Parking.
"To me, if there is any legal obligation on the part of the city to give the parking authority the money, it's unconstitutional," Morlan said, citing a statewide prohibition designed to keep cities from entering into long-term contracts without a public vote.
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