Parking Wars
It's Hard to Hand Over the Meters

The ongoing parking privatization kerfuffle at Cincinnati City Hall is making for some strange political cross-dressing, and may quickly become the hottest issue in this year's races for mayor and city council.

In recent years, "privatizing" has been a buzzword embraced by the city's business interests, and their (usually GOP) defenders at City Hall. "Contracting out" city services long has been touted as a way to cut costs and make government run more efficiently. Whenever City Council faces a particularly nasty budget crunch, we've heard the call to privatize traditional public services like waste collection, maintenance or health centers. Charter schools and vouchers are just another way to privatize public education. "Why pay the high cost of union wages and benefits," the argument goes, "when we can find a contractor to get the work done with low wage workers at a fraction of the price?"

Not So Fast

But now that City Manager Milton Dohoney has offered a plan to "contract out" the city's parking lots and meters, some in the business community and their traditional political allies are the ones crying foul. Charlie Winburn, council's lone GOP survivor, is howling to save the city's meters. Mayoral candidate John Cranley has actually stopped complaining about the streetcar for a few seconds to launch his very own "Don't Privatize Our Parking Meters" website.

On its face, the "parking assets" sale seems no different from other privatization schemes that always have been popular with the "shrink government" crowd. It allows the city to eliminate about 35 jobs, uses private funds to upgrade our old technology meters to accommodate charge cards, and creates a hefty stream of revenue to help balance the city budget and pay for important projects "” whether that's a groundbreaking new mixed-use development on Fourth Street, or a new bike path in Hyde Park and Oakley.

Without the plan, the manager says we may have to shutter some recreation centers and pools, as well as cut more than 250 police and fire positions.

Free Is Hard To Give Up

So where's the rub?

Why are business folks and Ma and Pa Westwood crowding City Hall to shout this scheme down? Why have Winburn and Cranley latched onto this populist outcry with such zest?

Because, just like that free ride across the Brent Spence Bridge that, if ever replaced, might someday be tolled, we feel entitled to park free, or at very little cost, on our city's streets. Our holy grail is that free space downtown on a weeknight before a Reds game. We don't want to face a $50 fine if our meter expires while we pub-crawl Hyde Park Square or OTR on a Friday evening.

Xerox "” the dreaded privateer in this scheme "” will surely be more efficient in noticing when our meter expires than our current beloved crew of amiable meter maids and mates. And we suspect that the metered hours, rates and fines will all climb once those evil number crunchers from Xerox get their greedy privatizing mitts on our meters. Unlike privatizing trash collection "” when only the garbage men get the shaft "” Xerox could put its paws into all of our pockets. As council learned when it cut off free yard waste collection a few years back; the voters quickly notice when something that used to be free and easy is suddenly costing them cash and inconvenience.

Downtown and neighborhood businesses have grown to depend on a cheap supply of low-cost and low-hassle street parking to accommodate customers. If other city priorities get shorted in order to subsidize their businesses, well, tough luck!

To Quote Mr. Heston

No doubt, the city's parking lots and meters would run more efficiently and generate more cash for the city if placed under Xerox's profit-motivated thumb. And the city could sure use that cash.

But let's face it: Lots of us don't want to enable a system that will do a better job of collecting our money, or catching us when we break the law. That's why we overwhelmingly voted to ban those pesky cameras that would do a better job catching us if we drove to0 fast or ran a stoplight. That's why if asked about our federal budget priorities few of us say "More IRS agents!"

Count on some candidates for mayor and council this fall to channel Charlton Heston: "They'll have to pry this parking meter out of my cold dead hand!" â– 

Don Mooney is a partner at the
Cincinnati office of Ulmer & Berne, LLC,
and is active in local politics.