Taxpayer-backed Parking Perk Puts Government Honchos in Driver Seat
If you’ve driven downtown for a day of fun at Navy Pier, to gorge at the Taste of Chicago or to catch a glimpse of "the Bean" in Millennium Park, you’ve probably paid for parking – and you’ve probably paid a lot. Parking in Chicago garages and surface lots can sock your wallet for $20, $30 or more. And for those who regularly drive for work, monthly rates are common, though they can easily stretch into the thousands over the course of a year.
But for hundreds of City of Chicago, Cook County and State of Illinois government employees, Chicago parking fees aren’t much of a worry – because they qualify for reduced or free parking, courtesy of taxpayers.
To that end, a Better Government Association/NBC5 analysis of nearly 70 public agencies found taxpayers spent roughly $1 million on parking in Chicago for public-sector employees in 2011 – a figure that covered 562 leased parking spaces and, at the Chicago Public Schools alone, thousands of parking vouchers.
While government officials said in most cases the spaces they rent are needed for employees who travel for their jobs and need to come and go with ease, other times the spots appear to be nothing more than perks.
In any event, in response to inquiries from the BGA and NBC5, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday sent a letter to city department heads and sister agencies directing them to take a closer look at employee parking and report "additional opportunities for savings" to David Reynolds, the city’s commissioner of fleet and facilities management, by Feb. 21.
Dear City of Chicago Department Heads and Sister Agencies:
It is our duty as public servants to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars. Over the past nine months this Administration has taken numerous steps to reduce expenses in City government, while protecting critical City services.
One area where the City of Chicago has made significant progress is in reducing the expense of paid employee parking. In 2011, the City reduced the amount spent on paid parking by more than 43 percent as compared to 2010. This was done in a variety of ways, including: implementing car sharing programs for City vehicles to limit the number of pool vehicles needed downtown; routinely verifying that employees with paid parking require that parking to perform their job duties; maximizing parking in City-owned locations; and requiring the use of public transportation whenever appropriate. We continue to look for further reductions in paid parking expenses in 2012, and anticipate reducing our annual spend by another $30,000.
The City departments and sister agencies have made great strides in eliminating unnecessary parking expenses and privileges--but our work is not done. Since taking office, I have continuously encouraged you to closely scrutinize every expense with an eye towards savings both big and small. I expect all sister agencies and department heads to closely review your paid parking expenses, and to identify and report on additional opportunities for savings to David Reynolds, Commissioner of Fleet and Facility Management, by February 21, 2012.
I look forward to reviewing your plans for additional paid parking savings, and appreciate your continued commitment as responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel
Of the $1 million or so spent in 2011 on Chicago parking, more than $750,000 was allocated for dedicated parking spots, and nearly $200,000 was spent on parking validations, vouchers and reimbursements, according to records requested under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, and other documents.
CPS topped all agencies by spending more than $366,000 for parking last year. The financially strapped school system spent about $151,000 to rent 60 parking spaces at the Park One garage at 711 S. Plymouth Ct. for staff at Jones College Prep high school. Another $134,000 was spent on 42 monthly rentals at InterPark’s 17 E. Adams St. garage for staff at CPS’ Loop headquarters. An additional $81,000 was spent for discounted $14 parking passes at the same InterPark garage – enough for almost 5,800 passes.
The passes are typically used by central office employees who don’t have a regular parking space and are not in the field on a daily basis but have to travel on occasion, a CPS spokeswoman said. The passes also are used by employees who have to travel to school or community meetings, or attend other off-site activities, she said.
City government reported spending $123,000 for employee parking in 2011 – about $92,000 to rent as many as 61 parking spaces at five different garages. Those spaces covered roughly 23 city departments, records show.
The City Colleges of Chicago reported an annual cost of more than $103,000 to rent 35 spaces, most of them at the InterPark facility at 326 S. Wells St.
And the Chicago Housing Authority spent nearly $74,000 to rent 33 parking spaces and 10 bike parking spaces between the Grant Park South Garage and the neighboring garage beneath the CNA building at South Wabash Avenue and East Van Buren Street.
The State of Illinois only provided figures for a four-month period last year: roughly $90,000 was spent during that time on 243 leased parking spots, records show.
Cook County officials provided a listing of payments to companies with downtown parking garages. A BGA review of those payments showed nearly $64,000 was spent during the previous year for parking rentals and validations.
Typically, parking rates are negotiated, and they vary wildly. The Chicago Park District, for instance, pays just $40 a month for each of 54 employees to park at the Embassy Suites Garage at North Columbus Drive and East Grand Avenue. While the Housing Authority of Cook County pays $289 a month for each of its three spaces at the InterPark facility in the 300 block of South Wells Street.
Several agencies reported that parking is provided for employees who often need their vehicles for work or because they work odd hours. "Parking is allotted to staff based on job duties, including substantial interface with the colleges or the community and frequent in-and-out use of a parking facility, often with no advance notice," said City Colleges Chancellor Cheryl Hyman. "City Colleges constantly reviews parking assignments to ensure they reflect current needs and are justified by the employees' job duties."
Hyman gets a taxpayer-funded parking spot for her personal vehicle – and also has a security officer drive her to and from off-site meetings in an official agency SUV, officials confirmed.
Meanwhile, officials stressed that some of the parking expenses are temporary, will end soon or have been reduced from previous years in efforts to be more efficient with taxpayer dollars. CPS will end paid parking for Jones College Prep staff once the school’s parking lot is completed in the fall of 2013. Employer-paid parking at the park district will end on March 1. The CHA has dramatically reduced its fleet of vehicles and parking spaces. The agency no longer assigns fleet cars to staff members or reimburses them for mileage when they use their personal vehicles for work.
In 2011, the City Colleges reduced its rented parking spaces by 20 percent and the City of Chicago reduced employee parking expenses by more than 40 percent –
eliminating it altogether in three city departments, officials said. And the city expects to trim another $30,000 from parking costs this year. "The [City of Chicago] will continue to monitor employee parking policies to ensure that parking is only provided in cases where it is absolutely necessary for job performance. We will continue to implement car sharing programs, and we will continue to encourage employees to use public transportation," Reynolds said in a statement.
Government agencies often cite job duties as the reason why they pay for employee parking, but it doesn’t always hold water, said Jason Schrieber, a principal with transportation consulting firm Nelson/Nygaard, which has assessed aspects of transportation and parking in Chicago and several other cities throughout North America. "That argument usually only works for a subset of [government] workers."
Indeed some government workers are travelling throughout the day on most days and need their vehicles to travel at a moment’s notice, but Schrieber said government agencies also provide parking for people "who are just sitting at their desks."
Some government agencies also require parking because they have staff members based downtown while their jobs require them to travel frequently to various locations throughout the city and county. The Housing Authority of Cook County’s properties are all in suburban Cook County, miles from the agency’s downtown office.
Likewise, the City Colleges, the park district, the CHA and other agencies have facilities at great distances from their downtown offices. "Our seven colleges and seven satellite sites are spread out across the city and some are not easily accessible from downtown in a time-effective manner without a car," Hyman said in her statement.
Schrieber said employer-paid parking is common in the private sector and typically offered as a perk to the highest-paid workers. It’s a theme that also seems to hold true for government workers in Chicago, according to lists of employees using the rented parking spaces that the government agencies provided.
At the City Colleges, for instance, employees with access to downtown parking garages average more than $125,000 in annual salary, records show. Overall, more than 75 government employees with free or subsidized parking spaces are making six-figure salaries.
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Thanks to the controversy surrounding former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s moves to lease city-owned parking garages and parking meters, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently increasing parking taxes, parking has become a sore subject in Chicago for residents who often park downtown and for downtown parking garage operators alike.
Parking garage operators are still smarting from the parking tax hike. "The operators must pass that tax along to the customers," said Monica Metzler, a spokeswoman for the Parking Industry Labor Management Committee – a group representing parking garage operators and workers. "That’s a tax on the customers."
Still, Schrieber said that government agencies—particularly those in Chicago—are much farther ahead of their private-sector counterparts in getting people out of their cars and using alternative means to commute and travel for work like car-sharing programs.
Instead of renting monthly parking spaces, some agencies buy vouchers or validations for their workers to use on days when they have to travel. The Regional Transportation Authority does not rent parking spaces for its employees. Instead, the RTA purchases parking vouchers and provides them to workers who must give a valid work-related reason to use them, according to RTA spokeswoman Diane Palmer.
Last summer, the City of Chicago ordered nearly 80 employees to return the vehicles the city had leased for them to do their jobs. Mayor Emanuel pulled the cars to cut about $430,000 from the city’s budget. The city is considering doing the same for some of the remaining 4,800 vehicles it leases for city workers. City officials have suggested lower-cost alternatives such as using pool cars or the car-sharing program Zipcar.
This story was written and reported by BGA Senior Investigator Alden Loury and NBC5’s Dick Johnson. Loury can be reached at (312) 821-9036 or at email@example.com.