When city Councilman Doug Shields asked if anyone favored Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's controversial 50-year parking lease proposal to solve the city's pension problem — which will result in an almost doubling of fees in four years — none of the roughly 75 attendees raised their hands.
The July 27 public hearing at the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers Building on the South Side was conducted by council President Darlene Harris, and council members Mr. Shields, Bruce Kraus, Natalia Rudiak, R. Daniel Lavelle, and William Peduto.
The state requires the city to run a Social Security System for its public safety employees who retire at age 50. Currently, the city is paying more retirees than it has employees paying into the retirement fund.
Market crashes over the last 11 years have devasted the pension's fund to 50 percent, compounding the problem.
According to State Act 44 of 2009, the city must fund its pension fund to 50 percent, or $210 million, by Dec. 31. The act provides incentives for leasing parking assets to raise the money.
If the city does not comply, the state will take over the $300 million pension fund from the city.
The city would be forced to come up with an additional $30 million a year toward pension funds, which could mean increased real estate or earned income taxes.
The proposed lease agreement is for 12 downtown garages and 9,000 metered spaces.
Rates will rise at downtown meters to $4.50 an hour by 2014; rates will rise to $2 an hour in South Side. Other neighborhoods will see similar increases.
Enforcement hours would be extended from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with Sunday hours added from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.
During the public comment, a resident said 50-year leasing will "take our children's future" and be a monopoly.
Another resident said the high hourly meter rates will hurt many neighborhoods with small businesses, calling it "extortion after 6 p.m."
Two attendees jointly presented an alternative: instead of leasing garages to a third party, institute a sliding pay scale: city residents will pay $50 per month for an unlimited parking permit, while non-residents pay $75. Stickers will be placed on windshields indicating payment. Quarterly and annual plans would offer savings.
"It makes no fiscal logic to me," said a South Side resident of the 50-year lease.
"It is madness here to find parking. The increased rates will put pressure on free spots," he said.
A South Side resident and gallery director suggestedsurtaxing suburbanites, and building a parking garage on the South Side and letting residents lease three floors for a fee.
Another South Side resident called the current parking management system a "nightmare," involving the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA), Parking Authority, council, police, and City Planning.
"Any discussion about consolidating management?" he asked.
A "future small business owner" said he was frustrated with city government.
"Why can't the city make money on the parking itself?" he said.
Another resident urged council members in attendance to tell the state "We want to be in control of our destiny."
A South Side business owner said, "Please say no. Don't sell us out. There are other ways to make money."
The final speaker asked what it would be like today if 50 years ago a system was locked in. Things change, he said, but we would be stuck with it.
He ended by saying he planned to write letters to his state representatives.
The evening concluded with each council member offering their thoughts on the matter.
"Our goal is to come up with another plan," said Mr. Peduto. He asked why the city couldn't keep the asset, operate it, raise rates, and float a bond, as previously suggested by Ms. Harris.
"I felt like this was being rammed down my throat," he said of the mayor's plan. He urged attendees to call their state representatives.
"Let's get the best solution for Pittsburgh," Mr. Peduto said.
Next, Mr. Kraus, a former small business owner whose father was also a small business owner, said he would not vote for the agreement.
"What I see here is an ill-advised plan to solve our pension problem on the backs of small-business owners," he said.
"If it is a viable and profitable business," he said of city parking, "let us manage as a viable and profitable business."
The city loses a lot of money by not enforcing parking rules on the books, he said.
Mr. Kraus said he has seen "astounding changes" in his 56 years, and that he cannot see how one can predict what will happen in the decades ahead.
Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle said "we are here to be your ally." But he said he would not say with "100 percent certainty" that he would vote against the proposal as he needs to see a viable alternative.
Ms. Rudiak also urged residents to contact state officials.
Residents are very concerned about the issue, she said, as all three public meetings she has attended have been packed, including a standing-room-only crowd last week in Brookline in a "hot, un-air conditioned" church.
Ms. Harris concluded by saying council commissioned a $250,000 study in June to analyze options. Once it is completed, there will be more public hearings, she said.