Have you seen the 1993 movie, “Dave?” In it, Dave Kovic, played by actor Kevin Kline, turns out to be an exact look-a-like of the president of the United States. The conservative president suffers a stroke; Kovic takes over the job; and, in one scene, he decides to he needs to find some money in the federal budget for a homeless shelter. With the national press corps in the room, Kovic turns to the secretary of commerce for some help, and the reluctant secretary looks at the cameras pointing at him and agrees he can give up some of his department’s funds for the cause.
It was a little like that at last night’s City Council meeting when council member Brian Fagan at one point said he was sick of talking about problems with downtown parking and wasn’t sure he needed to hear any more proof that they existed.
He said he was ready to take on the question of the moment, should the council turn to a private manager to run the city’s parking operation instead of using city employees?
Then Fagan’s head turned to the left, facing the crowd, which included a group of a dozen or so city employees who would lose their jobs in a privatization move. He saw them looking back at him. “Of course, I don’t want to hone in on that” is what it sounded like he said. He then made reference to the fact that many of employees had 20 years of service to the city.
What is it that the city can do, he asked, to improve its downtown parking services with the employees? But he said, too, that he wanted to see the more-detailed report about Republic Parking System, the Chattanooga, Tenn., company that the City Council has been asked by a city committee to take a look at.
Last night’s hour-long council debate on public versus private was as spirited and delightful to watch as any council debate you can find.
When quiet finally came, it was clear any plan to turn the city’s downtown parking operation over to a private manager and send about a dozen long-time city employees packing isn’t anywhere near happening.
No one on the City Council last night seemed eager to hire a private management company to run the city’s parking operation, although Doug Neumann, president/CEO of the Downtown District, said many cities swear by the move to privatization as a way to get improved service, more expertise, newer technology, customer amenities and better-maintained parking facilities.
Confronted by council member Monica Vernon at one point about just what the problem was, Neumann pointed to a recent downtown parking study and years of displeasure from downtown property owners over the ways in which the city’s downtown parking operation hurts the downtown.
Neumann, though, made it clear that the Downtown District was stopping short of pushing for privatization of the parking system. The downtown property owners would settle for a plan in which the city figured out a way to provide better service and more expertise on its own, he said.
Getting the current city operation to become something more than it has been is one thing several council members, including Fagan, Tom Podzimek, Justin Shields and Vernon, seemed to want to know about.
Todd Taylor, a state representative in House District 34 in Cedar Rapids and a staff representative for AFSCME, spoke to the council last night on behalf of the city parking employees who stood to lose their jobs if the council decided to privatize the operation.
Taylor called on the council to ask the employees – whose average years of service to the city was 17, he said – to help come up with ideas to make the current parking operation better.
Council members Shields, president of Hawkeye Labor Council, Jerry McGrane and Chuck Wieneke said they had no interest in eliminating the jobs of employees simply because many of them now were at the top of their pay grades and had good city benefits.
Shields said this City Council talks on and on about its vision for a better city, adding that replacing good-paying jobs with low-paying ones wasn’t part of the vision.
McGrane said cutting these jobs would send a bad signal to the rest of the city’s loyal employees.
Wieneke, who has been an executive with Iowa Workforce Development, questioned if Republic Parking System really could limit annual turnover to 25 percent of their employees when they were paying low wages.
Last night’s debate featured some testy if civil exchanges between Vernon and Fagan and Fagan and Shields.
After Vernon said she had not heard a clear statement of what the parking problem was, Fagan pointed to a 2005 study that all council members were given to read in recent months. Fagan said the problems were well-known, he was sick of talking about them and he said reading studies and listening over and over to downtown property owners was part of being a council member.
Shields, sitting next to Fagan with his face just a couple feet away, said how come nothing had come of the 2005 parking study if it was so important.
Casey Drew, the city’s finance director, said Republic Parking System could save the city an estimated $117,646 a year in personnel expenses.
Council member Pat Shey said that wasn’t much money unless someone could make a “compelling” case for how a private manager could significantly improve service.
Shey agreed that parking in the downtown is a crucial matter for the City Council to figure out, and the Downtown District’s Neumann said it was crucial if the downtown was to become all it could as a business park, entertainment center and residential center.
Neumann, for instance, talked about the need for “capacity management” so all the parking spots in a parkade are being used to their maximum. He pointed to instances in which downtown employers asked for parking spaces in a particular parkade, were told none were available and yet 100 spaces typically sit empty in the same parkade in any given day.
Fagan talked about the phone calls he and other council members have gotten when motorists have had to sit for an hour or more in a parkade waiting a turn to pay a cashier and get out.
Shields wondered why the private parking company was being championed as having so many years of experience in parking. How many years has the city run its own parking operation? Shields asked. How is it, he asked, that the city, after all those years, doesn’t know anything about the business?
Vernon admitted that she’s intrigued about some of the premium amenities that private-sector parking companies offer to parkers. For instance, customers can have the company arrange to have their oil changed during the day while the customers are off at work.
Vernon, though, wondered how many customers really pay an extra fee and use the service.
City Manager Jim Prosser said it could be more complicated for the city to try to offer a similar service because the city might be criticized for picking one vendor over another. However, council member Tom Podzimek wondered why the city’s own fleet management operation couldn’t provide the service and make some extra money for the city.
When Prosser explained to Vernon that the parking company also would get a vendor to do the oil changes or minor vehicle repairs, Vernon responded, “So it’s something outsourced by the outsourcers.”