The timeline of the strange separation (76)

(76th in a series of posts on parking)

Here is the timeline of the interaction among City Council, the City, and the Bethlehem Parking Authority that resulted in the split responsibilities for the naturally linked revenue streams of meter rates and fines discussed in the previous post. Gadfly’s sources were City files (tip o’ the hat to Tad Miller and Louise Kelchner) and Morning Call files (Dan Hartzell was the main reporter in the 1980s).

  • May 26, 1958: Kate Zoll Laepple begins a 7-part series in the Morning Call entitled “Bethlehem’s Parking Challenge,” identifying, among other things, the need for a parking authority to solve a parking problem so bad that one solution proposed was to use the flat area under the Broad St. bridge and build an escalator up to Main St.!
  • June 2, 1970: The Bethlehem Parking Authority is established, called “a key to the renaissance of the downtown” – its purpose to provide the financing for the Walnut St. Garage, which is completed in 1976. The BPA provides only financing; parking operations and enforcement stay within City Hall.
  • July 1988: New mayor Ken Smith’s “sweeping proposals to restructure city parking operations” include raising parking rates and fines, doubling the number of parking meters, eliminating the large annual subsidy of the Walnut St. Garage, moving total control of parking from City Hall to the BPA, and planning for two parking decks.
  • City officials recognize “new space will be needed if the city is to be in its best position to lure developers. . . . We stand to lose development as a result of the parking shortage.” They also recognize that “There will be significant opposition to more meters and increased rates and fines,” but “a much more realistic and financially self-sufficient parking system will be the reward.”
  • August 1988: City Council’s Public Safety Committee unanimously approves the administration’s recommendation to raise the penalty for overtime parking violations because fines are too low to provide enough incentive for motorists to obey parking regulations.
  • October 4, 1988: Mayor Smith’s plan to reorganize parking administration wins first-reading approval of City Council. Council members express concern over several aspects of the plan, including whether differences in policy between the authority and council might cause problems. But the vote on first reading is 5-0, with two members absent.
  • October 18, 1988: Mayor Smith’s parking reorganization plan is given final approval by City Council, but questions remain over whether the administration’s funding estimates for the program will be realized. Some Council members, especially Paul Calvo, are still choking on doubling the number of parking meters in the city. The administration proposes to deal with this potential problem by instituting a residential parking permit program. Calvo warns of the potential for trouble, saying that differences between the operating authority’s goals and council’s decisions on funding matters could result in some difficult situations.
  • November 18, 1988: The BPA announces it will recommend that City Council increase the cost of using city parking meters and expects to unilaterally raise the rate at the Walnut St. parking garage next year. While council approval is needed for meter rate increases, the authority has the sole power to raise rates at the garage.
  • December 29, 1988: BPA and City reach a “cooperation agreement” that spells out the roles and services of each party.
  • January 1, 1989: The BPA officially becomes an operating rather than a financial agency.
  • January 23, 1989: City Council’s Public Safety Committee votes unanimously to allow the mayor and not council to review and approve BPA requests for the location of new parking meters and the rates charged for using them. Committee member Calvo suggests this transfer of power, and city and authority solicitors determine that it would be legal for council to delegate control over meter location and rates. Calvo says he will vote against the addition of a large number of meters, but to subject authority requests for new meters to council’s review would be to jeopardize the mayor’s parking plan. Calvo says he does not want to be put in the position of turning down new meters or fee increases only to be told later that his action resulted in the authority being unable to meet its income projections. And the city must repay any parking fund deficit. Calvo says his motion was not a way to escape responsibility but rather an assurance that the mayor’s parking plan has the best chance of working. Councilman James Delgrosso suggests that, if the change is approved by resolution of council, the mayor be required to conduct public hearings prior to making decisions.
  • February 7, 1989: Council approves on first reading, by a 5-2 vote, an ordinance empowering the mayor as the final authority over the number and placement of parking meters and the rates to be charged at the meters. Council President Jack Lawrence dissents, believing the BPA should have the power, and Councilman Otto Ehrsham Jr wants to retain the current law by which powers are reserved for council. Proponents, including Calvo, deny the change is a move to reduce the political heat for the placement of the new meters and for the increase in fees for their use. Calvo says Council wants to give the mayor’s parking reorganization a chance to work. Calvo opposes the wholesale installation of new meters but does not want that opposition to be misinterpreted as an attempt to thwart the financial premises on which the reorganization is based. Smith readily accepts the responsibility for meter placement and rate-setting. Council and City Hall agree on a provision calling for public input into large-scale meter placement.
  • February 21, 1989: at 2nd reading, an ordinance transferring the power to locate and regulate parking meters and rates from council to the mayor passes 5-1. The ordinance requires a public hearing prior to either the installation of new meters or to any rate increase affecting more than 10 percent of the meters.
  • In all of these recent deliberations, nothing is ever said about changing the responsibility for the amount of parking violation fines, so that power remains with Council.

The strange separation (75)

(75th in a series of posts on parking)

Do you remember the controversy centered on the Bethlehem Parking Authority that sucked the life out of the last third of 2018?

Is the Walnut St. Garage going to be repaired or rebuilt? Is there going to be a Polk St. Garage? Are the parking meter rates and fines going to be increased? If so, what is the new revenue going to be used for? Does the BPA have a business plan? Is the BPA acting in a good faith, transparent fashion? Are there straight answers to anything?

At the core of the controversy, the BPA wants more money from its twin sources of income, meter rates and fines, which should march in sensible relation to each other, which should increase in tandem – fines, for instance, living 10-15% higher than the meter rate.

The Mayor approved BPA’s proposed meter rate increase. City Council, however, denied their fine increases. The reasons are complicated and the subject of the first 73 posts in this sequence. So now there is no symmetry between rates and fines. The meter rates went up January 1, but the fines did not. A situation the two sides will attempt again to resolve in the near future.

But the question for this ol’ researcher is, how did we get to a system where such naturally joined elements as parking meter rates and parking violation fines are separated – the mayor controlling the former, City Council with responsibility for the latter?

The question was asked several times during the course of the controversy in the latter part of 2018. You can understand why. If responsibility for the two revenue streams were located in one agent, either the Mayor or City Council, there would be no gnarled dispute.

Nobody really knew the answer to that question. The answer that this must be a separation of powers/checks and balances element consciously envisioned by “the Founders” didn’t seem to satisfy and, indeed, is not the answer. The answer is the complete opposite. Rates and fines were separated precisely to eliminate tension between the two “houses” of city governance not to enhance it.

Here, in a nutshell, is what ol’ Gadfly found researching both Morning Call and City Hall files. See expanded information in the timeline on the next post.

The Parking Authority was established in 1970 to finance the Walnut St. Garage. Financing was all that it did. At that time and continuing into the 1980s, parking operations continued to be handled by the City, and City Council continued to set the fee structure for meters and fines. In 1988, for what seem like various and good reasons, Mayor Ken Smith proposed sweeping changes, giving the BPA complete responsibility for parking in the city, though Council retained responsibility for setting the finances. City Council not only acquiesced to the Mayor’s radical plan but went further. Councilman Paul Calvo proposed also relinquishing responsibility for the number of meters and meter rates to the Mayor so that 1) the BPA could reasonably control its budget without interference, and 2) so that Calvo (and others) could argue and vote against the Mayor’s plan for increased meters without being accused of “political” bias. Calvo was quick to deny that he was trying to escape the “heat” from the public that the Mayor’s plan to double the number of meters as well as increasing the rate would likely generate. In any event, any political fall-out would be borne by the Mayor. Fines were not part of the discussion or the legislation [was that an oversight?], hence fines remained in control of Council.

Now we know why we have what everybody seems to believe is an illogical system.

Call it the Calvo plan.

(Paul Calvo was a teacher, accomplished athlete, successful coach, 25yr. member of City Council, and a Gadfly neighbor. He died only six years ago.)

Was Gadfly’s research just an academic exercise? Or does it have some utility?

Gadfly kept an open mind up to a certain point in the controversy, but he ended up thoroughly negative about the culture of the BPA.

The majority of City Council likewise had problems of a serious nature that led to their denial of the BPA fine proposal as a means of getting some answers to key questions.

Resulting in the current limbo situation, a situation that cannot persist for long.

One wonders, then, now knowing the rather arbitrary origin of the meter/fine split, whether City Council could, if it so desired, legislate itself back into full financial control in order to be able to completely “call the shots” where parking is concerned.

If Gadfly remembers correctly, the Desman consultant to the BPA indicated that this split is unique. We are alone in having such a divided system.

Should the system be unified again?

Should what might be thought of as a “delegated” power be revoked?

BPA-time again! (74)

(74th in a series of posts on parking)

New year. Girding my loins, as they used to say in the old days, for the first meeting of the Bethlehem Parking Authority.

Look at the number here. Gadfly devoted 73 posts in the old year to the BPA.

And didn’t come away unscathed. He was gruffly told he couldn’t question the Board at one meeting. And after another meeting the ticket machine in the parking garage ate his credit card.

Don’t mess with these guys.

They have powers.

I missed the December meeting. They changed the time twice, and I couldn’t make the 3rd time.

So I’m not up to speed on the latest developments.

But here’s what’s on my list:

  • It looks like the parking meter rates did go from $1.00/hr to $1.50/hr on January 1.  I don’t remember seeing any fanfare. Did anybody? Did I miss? For I understood there was to be a publicity roll-out, including keeping the old rate till June 1 if you used an app. Is anybody griping about the 50% increase? Did it go down smoothly?
  • The Mayor promised that the Redevelopment Authority would provide Council with a timeline of their involvement in the Polk Garage saga. I wonder if that happened.
  • The BPA is to meet with Council about funding options for Polk in the first quarter of this year (January-March). So we’ll be looking for that to happen.
  • Decisions about the fines are to happen at the time of the funding meeting as well.
  • The mayor included several things, like investigating variable rate parking, when he approved the meter rate proposal. So we’ll be looking for the status of those things. See the mayor’s letter to BPA:  Mayor Parking Meter Rate Increase.
  • Gadfly was to investigate when and why the strange system that splits responsibility between rates and fines between the mayor and Council started. Gadfly does have info on that which will be coming soon (shameless tease).

Have I forgotten anything?

Anybody have concerns?

 

 

“Makes no sense to me” (73)

(73rd in a series of posts on parking)

The parking system in Bethlehem: the mayor has responsibility for meter rates, the City Council for fines, and the Bethlehem Parking Authority for the parking lots.

Councilman Callahan

“When the Parking Authority was created, who came up with the rules that the mayor takes care of the meters and City Council takes care of the fines. . . . Who made the rules and how could they possibly be changed?”

Mayor Donchez

“I think the answer to your question is that I really don’t know. But what I assume is this. The Parking Authority used to be within the Police department, and I think we are probably talking about 1960s or early 1970s. It was removed, set up as an independent Board with an executive director hired by the Board to be less political and having all the tickets fixed within City Hall. And I think that the key reason was the Authority could take out bonds. I would think that when they established the Board, they came up with the trifecta, which makes no sense to me, to be very honest with you.”

Councilman Callahan

“I don’t agree with the structure. . . . I have no idea how it came up. . . . I don’t know if it can be changed or whatever.”

Sounds like homework for an historian to me.

Never totally satisfied (72)

“Now that it sounds like we are going to be tabling the fine increases. Are you still going to direct the Parking Authority in terms of the meter increases as of January 1.”
Councilman Colon

“The answer is yes.”
Mayor Donchez

So Gadfly had a feeling of substantial satisfaction about the handling of the gnarled parking issue at last week’s City Council meeting.

The Mayor outlined what is, in effect, a business plan on the Polk St. Garage, a good in its own right, but the main specific request of City Council in what President Waldron called the “infamous” set of questions posed to the BPA.

Great!

The one puzzling piece of last Wednesday’s action, however, was leaving in place the January 1 inception of the meter rate increases.

Everybody knows the rates and the fines need to work in tandem. There was plenty of discussion at the meeting of what will happen negatively if they are not in tandem.

Mainly complaints to City Council!

Councilfolk Colon, Van Wirt, and Waldron each brought it up. January 1 is an arbitrary date. The rates don’t have to go up then. We should work together on timing, said Van Wirt.

But the Mayor said yes.

I’m surprised nobody pushed him. I don’t understand why nobody pushed him.

What would a few months matter?

Why consciously court the kind of absurdity that Councilman Callahan repeatedly depicted, no matter how short the time?

Doesn’t make any sense to Gadfly.

The nasty interpretation: Public and business blowback will be directed at Council, who has responsibility for the fines, and such blowback is a backatcha by the Mayor and BPA for Council’s actions.

The benign interpretation: BPA had planned a soft opening of the new system, which wouldn’t really, really go into effect till June 1, so maybe the perturbation of the system is not seen as severe as has been forecast.

Gadfly just doesn’t understand why – during the Era of Good Feeling at the meeting – this last detail was not nailed down.

Gadfly also hopes that the examination of Variable Rate Parking doesn’t disappear and hopes that a detailed plan for studying it will emerge at the BPA meetings with Council early and mid-2019.

“Good conversation builds community” (71)

“Most things can be explained. . . . We could provide this information clearer.”
Councilman Reynolds

Gadfly believes strongly in the above tagline for his project.

The major process take-away for him from following this parking issue for several months is the need for better communication all around.

Some randomly organized thoughts about communication during this process, seen, of course, from Gadfly’s necessarily outside and possibly ill-informed perspective – and meant to be helpful:

  • The Parking Authority does not know how to “speak” to the public or even to City Council. Gadfly said at a BPA Board meeting that they need a public relations person. They had an enormous and no doubt competent parking study, but the tailoring, the transmitting, the marketing, the communicating of that study to important stakeholders was not tended to.
  • At the last City Council meeting, the Council liaison spoke of “numerous discussions” recently with the BPA Board chair, but Gadfly doesn’t see that there was a channel for those discussions to the rest of Council. Maybe there was; Gadfly is not aware of how Council members interact outside of meetings.
  • If Gadfly is not mistaken, according to the published BPA minutes going back to December 2017, the Council liaison has not attended BPA meetings.
  • If Council has liaisons to all the Authorities, do they periodically “report” back officially to Council? Gadfly believes there was recent reference to a Redevelopment Authority meeting where something important happened. And “nobody was there.” The whole general issue of announcing meetings, posting agendas, publishing minutes has to be tightened.
  • Gadfly, admittedly on slim observation, wonders about the “involvement” of BPA Board members. The chairman is an “institution” (nearly two decades on the Board), and Council liaison’s “numerous discussions” were solely with him, outside of Board meetings. Are the fresh new voices on the Board engaged? Or is the BPA power vested in one person?
  • It was not possible for Gadfly to communicate directly with BPA Board members. And some BPA leaders were not responsive to interaction with Gadfly.
  • Gadfly found the Mayor’s report and demeanor at the last meeting refreshing and reassuring. Gadfly felt the need for more of that. This will sound strange, but Gadfly found himself reflecting that he doesn’t hear from the Mayor much. There is little in the way of “reports” at City Council meetings. He is a kind of a “quiet” Mayor. Ha! Which, all in all, I think may be a good trait. But there are times when we need the firm voice of the leader.
  • the “trifecta” system – mayor responsible for meter rates, Council for fines, BPA for parking lots – though theoretically it might be seen as a mechanism for the trifectors to talk with one another, doesn’t seemed to have worked well.

The “parking issue” is not over, but Gadfly thinks there will be some quiet time for a while. Perhaps one or two more posts on it for now, and we can move on.

What’s behind the votes? (70)

(70th in a series of posts on parking)

We know that the vote was 6-1 in favor of indefinitely tabling the BPA proposal, but of as much interest as the final tally should be the reasons supporting the votes.

So here Gadfly gives you text and video windows on the main commentary preceding the vote. CM Callahan was the lone “no” vote, so we should pay special attention to his position as we judge the “ayes.”

Gadfly will post an overview reflection on the meeting and the decision in the near future, but in the meantime he invites you to engage with each of the positions and see where your opinion falls. With the video you can almost be there.

Councilman Reynolds

CM Reynolds framed the specific response to and specific questions he asked of the Mayor that Gadfly reported on last time with refreshing comments about what Gadfly would call communication problems. Reynolds pointed out the confusion and frustration some felt was created by lack of transparency and context. He expressed belief that all things could be properly explained but that “we” (the City) need to provide information in a clearer fashion. On the “large scale decisions,” it’s the administration’s job, not BPA’s, to “stand up” and articulate goals and rationale. Gadfly found those welcome sentiments and believes what the Mayor presented was aligned with those sentiments – a step toward better communication.

Councilman Callahan

CM Callahan was the lone “no” vote and he makes some good points. The video link is to Callahan’s initial and main comments, but Gadfly has added in points he made during two other comments.

  • The disparity between the meter rates and the fines will cause diminished parking turnover and more expenses for the BPA and will create a serious issue for the BPA that will inevitably become an issue for Council.
  • If Council action to deny the BPA proposal is for “leverage” against the BPA, that is a political act and not for the good of the City.
  • By the “rules” (everybody agrees the “trifecta” rules over responsibility for different parts of the parking system don’t make sense, and nobody seems to know who made them up!), fines should be tied to the rates. The Mayor made his decision, we should follow.
  • Denial puts the non-profits in a very difficult situation. They took a gamble situating there. They were promised a garage. Lots there are being bought up; there is no additional space. Some lots are on a 60-day vacate notice. The non-profits could face a situation where there is no parking, and it would take 16 months to build a garage.
  • Denial is basically telling everybody to not follow the rules. The whole point is to obey the law. It makes no sense to have a fine less than what it would cost to park. Some people simply won’t follow the rules.
  • We will eventually support a parking deck. BPA has provided a path to pay for it. There is no taxpayer money. The garage is paid for by people who use it. The only risk for the taxpayer is if BPA defaults, but BPA’s “financials are fine,” and they could get funding on their own but at a higher rate without City backing.
  • BPA as a whole supports the garages. Nobody has $20m to build a garage. The Walnut and North St. garages were not built with their own funds. The money came from the BPA as a whole.
  • He thinks that BPA sees tabling as politics and recommends voting not tabling even if the result turns out to be for denial. BPA is in to parking not politics. BPA was reading the “tea leaves” when it suggested tabling as ok.

Councilwoman Van Wirt

CW Van Wirt made 4 points:

1) The rates don’t have to go up January 1. We should work together on timing. Everybody understands the problem with rate and fine disparity, but rates do not have to go into effect January 1.

2) If BPA finances are so great, we should not have to be raising rates on backs of taxpayers. Authorities were created to leverage their own debt and not put it on the taxpayer. It’s ok for BPA to get their own bonds, taking risk off taxpayers, and if their finances are in good shape, they can pay the higher rate

3) The Walnut St. Garage is in the Central Business District, so there is a viable reason for City to provide financial support. Moreover, the Walnut already exists so that if it needs to be replaced, that’s a logical use of the money and of taxpayer-backed debt.

4) She’s hoping that CC and BPA can work hand in hand. They are stronger together. Being open and transparent gets things done faster and better. And everybody ends up more satisfied.

Councilman Waldron

CM Waldron was the clean-up man. Everybody agrees fines have to be raised. This is the first opportunity for Council to be part of the conversation of what parking means for our City. It makes sense to ask BPA what their 1yr goal, 5yr goal, and overall idea of parking within the City is. Polk is the “hot ticket item.” It is understood that the meter rate increase goes toward Polk and the fine increase to Walnut. But Walnut dollars are not needed right now, and “ultimately getting a full plan on what Polk St. will be, a timeline for that, what the funding will look like, is the best approach.” CC asked for a business plan and didn’t get it, so there’s not a lot of confidence in BPA long-term planning. It feels like they are making it up as they go because of lack of information. Maybe lack of communication rather than lack of planning is the problem. Tabling is the right move now and Council will approve fine increases when appropriate.

Video by Owen Gallagher