Rawlings-Blake's parting gift

As power grabs go, SRB's end run on selling city parking garages is pretty mild.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's idea to sell four city-owned parking garages and to use the proceeds to pay for recreation centers was an intriguing one when she proposed it, and it has remained so for the last two years. Whether it can be said to be anything more than "intriguing," we can't tell because City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young has refused to so much as hold a hearing on it.

It's not that he objects to selling the garages or that he disagrees with where the mayor would put the money. It's all about how explicitly the proposed legislation guarantees that the money would be dedicated to rec centers and about whether it should go for building a couple of new, massive facilities or for renovating a series of smaller ones. That's not so much counting chickens before they're hatched as arguing over whether they should be roasted or fried.

The idea of privatizing public parking is not new; several other cities have tried it with what can only generously be described as mixed results. Other cities — Chicago, for example — have not only sold off garages but have also privatized parking meters, leading to massive spikes in costs for consumers and only temporary benefit to the municipal budget. Ms. Rawlings-Blake's proposal, by contrast, was modest and sensible. She is only proposing to sell off four of the city's 17 parking garages, affecting about 3,000 of the more than 40,000 spaces in public and private garages and lots in the central business district. Future maintenance costs for the facilities are an unknown, as is the market for parking garages in an Uber/driverless car future. And dedicating the windfall to a one-time use of the money like the construction and renovation of recreation centers, rather than to cover an operating budget shortfall, makes good sense.

What makes the dispute between the mayor and council president so ridiculous, though, is that we really have no idea whether the proposed sale would generate enough money to do what either of them wants. The mayor has estimated that the sale would generate $60 million in cash, but there is reason to doubt that. The garages are profitable but not wildly so — the Finance Department estimated at the time Ms. Rawlings-Blake proposed the idea that their sale would result in a net annual loss of about $728,000 a year when you factor in maintenance costs and the fact that once privately owned, the garages would pay property taxes. They are already privately managed, so it's unclear how much more potential profit could be realized through efficiency. Unless rates went up substantially — which would be difficult for a private operator to accomplish given the competition in the market — it's not at all clear that they would be worth so much.

The new twist in the saga is that the mayor is proposing to bypass the City Council and authorize the sale through the Off Street Parking Commission, a body so obscure that no one is presently appointed to it. The law controlling it, which dates to 1948, gives six of the 11 seats to members of the mayor's administration, so she can muster a quorum on her own. The City Code says that the commission is "granted full power and authority" to act on behalf of the Mayor and City Council when it comes to the provisions related to off-street parking outlined in the city charter, which includes the sale, lease or transfer of garages.

As far as power grabs go, this one is relatively mild. The commission can authorize the sale of the garages, at which point the city's Finance Department can shop them around to see what offers it gets. It would then have to bring any proposed deals before the Board of Estimates for final approval. By then, Ms. Rawlings-Blake will be gone, and Mayor-elect Catherine Pugh will have taken over. Ms. Pugh has been non-committal about the idea, so this whole exercise may go nowhere.

Still, it's worth doing. The lame duck mayor isn't tying anyone's hands, she's just providing this debate with what it has been lacking so far — actual facts. Maybe this will turn out to be a good deal, maybe it won't, but at least Ms. Pugh will have some basis to judge whether to move forward or move on.

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