DOWNTOWN — Last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the city would stop debt collection and most parking tickets during the COVID-19 outbreak — but it turns out you still have to pay your meter.
In an effort to provide temporary financial relief, Lightfoot said the city would suspend booting, late fees and defaults on payment plans, city debt checks for rideshare and taxi drivers and limit ticketing, towing and impounding to public-safety related issues until April 30. An expired meter at a car that is otherwise legally parked would not result in a ticket, Lightfoot said at the time.
Lightfoot said the city would work with the private company that owns Chicago’s meters to ensure ticketing only occurs if there’s something that poses a safety threat. But Chicagoans across the city report they were slapped with tickets for expired meters in recent days anyway, including Ozzie Guillen, the former White Sox shortstop and manager.
In a Tuesday call with reporters, Lightfoot said ticketing is continuing, but the emphasis is supposed to be limited to public safety reasons.
“So it’s not free parking all over the city. … But what we said is, ‘Put the emphasis on cars or motorists who pose a public safety hazard,'” Lightfoot said.
On Friday, Block Club reported six to eight cars were slapped with a $70 ticket on one Streeterville block the morning after the new rules supposedly took effect.
“It’s a little frustrating. I know there’s a lot bigger problems going on, it’s just, I think, another annoyance for people to have to deal with that,” said one woman who got a ticket. “I would’ve gone out first thing in the morning and paid the meter.”
After residents continued to take to social media through the weekend to complain about tickets, the mayor and her team clarified the situation to Block Club.
“There are no plans to suspend issuing tickets for expired meters,” said Kristen Cabanban, director of public affairs with the Office of Budget and Management. Cabanban did say, however, the city will not issue city sticker and expired license plate violations until April 30.
The devil lurking in the details of the mayor’s plan could be one that has haunted Chicago before: The 2008 deal under former Mayor Richard Daley to lease the city’s parking meters to Chicago Parking Meters, LLC until 2083 for $1.15 billion.
Though Lightfoot initially said she would work with Chicago Parking Meters, LLC in hopes of reducing enforcement, that has not happened, according to ticketed Chicagoans.
“Obviously we continue to be in conversation with them about where the emphasis should be placed, but members of the public should know this isn’t just free parking for the duration,” Lightfoot clarified Tuesday. “Things like fire hydrants, blocking key entries to buildings, things along that line, those are things where we want the emphasis to be … not on expired meters. Although, again, people still need to feed the meters.”
Clint Krislov, founder and director of the Center for Open Government Law Clinic at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said Chicago Parking Meters, LLC could force the city to compensate the company later if it stops collecting meter payments now.
Tucked into the parking meter deal is a clause that allows Chicago Parking Meters, LLC to file a “compensation event” claim with an arbitrator if it believes the city took an action that caused it to lose revenue from its prized meters.
If the city closes a street for a parade or to allow for construction, the company files a claim to an arbitrator, who decides if the city has to pay the company back for lost meter revenue, Krislov said.
In 2018, the city paid $17.3 million in “compensation events” to the company, slightly down from the $21.7 million it paid in 2017, according to a 2019 audit.
Scott Burnham, a spokesman for Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, declined to say whether a global pandemic would spur the company to file a claim against the city. He referred all other questions to the city.
Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, a group of investors formed by banking giant Morgan Stanley, has nearly recovered its initial $1.15 billion investment, and will continue to profit from the meters for 63 years. The group hired LAZ parking to manage the meter system, and LAZ hires parking enforcement officers to patrol streets and enforce violations.
LAZ didn’t respond to requests for comment.
On March 19, LAZ Parking CEO Alan Lazowski joined Christine Banning, National Parking Association president, to request the federal government provide a “$5 billion stimulus infusion of grants and loans” to the parking industry.
“Our industry needs a stimulus infusion, interest-free loans, a moratorium on sales, parking, and corporate taxes, as well as a suspension of debt service payments on real estate loans, corporate debt and capital leases,” the letter read.
Krislov, whose 2009 lawsuit to overturn the deal was unsuccessful after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration defended the meter deal, said his Open Government Law Clinic would join the city if it ever chose to fight the deal again in court.
Asked if he thought the meter company would file a claim for lost revenue during a global pandemic, Krislov said, “The suspense will kill us both.”
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.
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