07/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Chicago's Parking Meter Deal a Prescription For Trouble

Caution: Inspector General David Hoffman's report on Chicago's parking meter sales debacle may be hazardous to your health.

Taxpayers who already suffer from high blood pressure shouldn't read his findings. They show that the 'dubious financial deal'--a 75-year lease to a private firm--was struck for at least $1 billion less than it was worth. According to Hoffman, that's how much more the city itself could have collected from meters without leasing them out.

If that's not enough to give you angina, Hoffman says the city's choice to railroad the parking deal through City Council with only two day's notice contravenes every recommendation on adopting public-private partnerships (PPP's) from Texas to Australia. Even worse, the federal Government Accounting Office has already taken Chicago to task for sloppy public-private lease deals, citing the city's failure to consider potential toll revenues in Mayor Daley's 2006 Skyway Lease deal.

Hoffman minces no words: there were other ways to fill the city's budget hole and all the savvy citizen has to do is follow news stories to believe him. One article examines how aldermen threatened with police layoffs were convinced to plug a $50 million dollar budget hole by leasing out parking meters. The next story counts up over a billion dollars in the city's bloated TIF slush fund. Who is in charge here? It makes your blood pressure spike.

It's not just the lease giveaway. It's the parking inequities. In April, I wrote President Stroger and Mayor Daley because of the tragic effect new meter rates have on poor hospital patients, who were caught short of quarters when parking rates jumped. Nobody tracks how many patients leave the ER with a little orange paper souvenir, but judging from the windshields, it's too many.

And believe me, the solution is not installing credit card meters. Asking credit-poor patients to use their credit cards is akin to saying, of the starving, "let them eat cake."

All around, the parking mess is a lesson in how much we don't know. We didn't know how many billions we gave away to Morgan Stanley by leasing out meters. And we don't really know who foots the bill for parking fees. In low-income, high-density neighborhoods, where curbs spots are scarce, parking tickets are a regressive tax. They cost people who can least afford tickets, the most money. And when they are booted and lose their cars and jobs, it's not just cash; it's heartache.

As taxpayers, it's high time we knew more: how many tickets are issued by ward, by neighborhood, by street. We should know why they are issued and who foots the bill, and, maybe, why a city with a billion dollar TIF surplus couldn't even balance its budget.