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The door is open for more of a lift in city's revenue

Tuesday, August 31, 2010
By Brian O'Neill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl suggests leasing out the city's parking garages and meters, but why stop there?

Dan Sullivan, one of my favorite civic gadflies, is set to make a modest proposal to City Council, perhaps as early as today: Lease the elevators in the City-County Building for the next 50 years.

"We will relieve taxpayers of paying for elevator maintenance by putting the charge on the elevator users directly," Mr. Sullivan says. "We will charge only 5 cents the first year, and raise the price over five years to 25 cents - per floor."

(I've learned over the years that this is the point in the column where I need to issue the SATIRE ALERT. In a world where governments are leasing everything from parking meters to highways, it's not always clear when somebody is kidding.)

Mr. Sullivan, 60, of Oakland, believes that politicians and junkies have a lot in common:

"They're always looking for a new vein to stick, but the blood comes out of the same person."

So it is probably with some trepidation that he makes this pitch, but he argues, "Private companies are more efficient than government, especially when we have licensed monopolies and no competition."

That is why he believes there need to be "standard protections" in his elevator lease deal, similar to those the mayor is pushing in his auction of the city's parking garages and meters.

The mayor believes the city can net more than $200 million in this Parkapalooza: It leases its parking garages for the next half-century, and establishes "a no-compete zone" Downtown wherein the private operator must be compensated if the city makes structural changes that cut into parking revenue.

Similarly, under Mr. Sullivan's elevator proposal, no offices could be moved out of the City-County Building, no public hearings could be moved and no one could use the stairs, without compensating the company leasing the elevators.

"It's just part of the standard privatization contract," Mr. Sullivan explained.

He intends to argue before council - which is far from sure to approve the mayor's plan - that his proposal goes hand-in-glove with leasing the parking garages.

Commuters aren't going to take the new, higher parking rates well, Mr. Sullivan suspects.

"Once people realize what has happened, anything that discourages them from coming [to complain to city officials] will be welcomed," he said. "Being gouged by a private parking monopoly will keep them out of the Golden Triangle, and being gouged by me will keep the complainers out of [council] chambers.

"It's a win-win."

I chided Mr. Sullivan because in the early 1990s he seemed to be working the other side of the street, saying city authorities had gotten too far into the private sector. "Perestroika in reverse," he called it then, noting that city authorities were parking cars, hosting conventions, managing sports stadiums, developing real estate and acting as a slum landlord. He joked that soon there would be a Pittsburgh Pizza Authority, with city pizza shops having an unfair advantage because they'd pay no property taxes.

Had he changed his mind?

No, he said. He'd have no fear of the city's plan to sell the garages if they were sold individually. Then there would be real competition. It's a licensed monopoly that he fears.

"If there's going to be a monopoly, better it be a government monopoly," he said.

Yeah, but corporations pay top dollar only when they're betting on a sure thing. Right now, seven pre-qualified bidders have until Sept. 15 to submit bids to the city on how much they'll pay to lease the city's parking garages and meters for the next 50 years.

The mayor intends to use that money to shore up the pension system, which is only about 28 percent funded, and keep the state from taking it over.

If that happens and, in a few years, the city still finds itself a little short, you might want to bring some quarters on any trip to the City-County Building. The cost of going up may be going up.

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