Rawl­ings-Blake’s part­ing gift

Our view: Mayor cre­ates a chance to move past a log­jam over city park­ing garages

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

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. Rawl­ingsBlake’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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