Call it the parking meter squeeze.
Residents and businesses in Chicago's Edison Park neighborhood on the Far Northwest Side say they're under siege by enforcement workers writing parking tickets day and night.
Locals are trying to fight back, but because the city privatized the meters as part of a 2008 deal brokered by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, there's not much they can do, the Better Government Association and FOX 32 found, in what's another cautionary tale about hasty privatization.
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Edison Park's commercial district consists of about two blocks of bars, restaurants and retail shops centered on Northwest Highway. Otherwise the community is mostly residential, part of the Bungalow Belt called home by numerous cops, firefighters and other city workers.
It's an unlikely battleground. But lately, everyone seems to have a war story.
"I just stopped in the store to get a quick soda," one man says. "Came out and I had a ticket on my car."
Says another: "They're out here every day, up and down this stretch, total harassment."
One night earlier this week around 9 p.m., that meant three meter maids trolling the stretch.
In 2008, Daley and the City Council approved a deal to lease the city's 36,000 parking meters to a private consortium called Chicago Parking Meters LLC for 75 years. In return, the city received a lump sum payment of just over $1 billion.
But as details emerged, critics blasted the arrangement, claiming the city would have collected more cash had it simply held onto the meters, and asking why Daley and aldermen acted so quickly when such a large, lucrative city asset was at stake. Critics also questioned whether clout was a factor in the decision-making – since one of Daley's nephews worked at one of the firms comprising Chicago Parking Meters.
Much of the ensuing public anger focused on higher parking rates. But Edison Park residents and business owners are now experiencing another aspect of the deal: Increased enforcement.
LAZ vehicle parked in front of an Edison Park fire hydrant / Photo courtesy of 41st Ward Alderman Mary O'Connor
Chicago Parking Meters, through subcontractor LAZ Parking, gets to pocket parking fees, and is responsible for the maintenance of the meter machines and is allowed to roam the city and, where there are meters, ticket at will.
While the city gets to keep ticket revenues, the tougher the ticketing, the more likely drivers are to feed the meters.
That's what's apparently going on now in Edison Park – an attempt by Chicago Parking Meters to maximize revenues.
The venture said in a written statement to FOX and the BGA: "Compliance teams are dispatched throughout the city and to specific neighborhoods. As always, compliance officers only issue tickets to drivers who have failed to pay for metered parking and are in direct violation of the law. Under the terms of the concession agreement, the goal of enforcement is to drive compliance."
But a side effect, aside from enraging locals, is that the company's efforts could be chasing away customers from Edison Park businesses.
Melissa Panizzi of Edison Park's Chamber of Commerce said the parking crackdown is "gonna affect the small business owners. These aren't corporations. These are mom-and-pop businesses."
Panizzi said the crackdown has been going on for roughly two weeks, often from 8:30 a.m. until after 9 p.m. "They sit in there and they watch. And the minute they see someone get out of their car, if they don't go right to that meter box, they get out and ticket them."
It's gotten so bad, the chamber put information on its Facebook page advising people where to go for free parking, and the group has urged businesses to put up signs warning customers about the aggressive ticketing. Some businesses are also stopping customers at the door and urging them to feed the meter machines to avoid a ticket.
The owners of one local Italian restaurant, Nonno Pino's, has started offering diners $7 off their tab to help pay for the metered parking.
Mary O'Connor, the local alderman, says she's heard the complaints, but there's nothing she or the police can do because the enforcement agents are employed by a private company.
She's so frustrated she gave a reporter a photo she took of a LAZ vehicle illegally parked in front of an Edison Park fire hydrant recently.
BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw said this whole situation represents a "cautionary tale about the problem of privatization," and illustrates the importance of the city not being so quick to relinquish control over taxpayer assets.
"You turn over control of the asset to a private business, which is profit-oriented, so they don't care whether residents and businesses are upset."