Streets for People / Monorail, Monorail, Monorail or Just Say No to Privatizing Key West Parking

On Tuesday, June 15 the City Commission heard a pitch from United Parking Partners’ Florida subsidiary FLParkingCo to privatize the City’s Parking Department, lessening the operational burden of our local government while bringing in oodles of guaranteed cash to Key West. The scene in City Hall reminded us of the Simpsons episode (Marge vs. the Monorail) where fast-talking salesman Lyle Lanley convinces the good townspeople of Springfield to buy a monorail system. Look, using private contractors has its place. Turning over our public streets and an important revenue source isn’t one of them. The City Commission should just say no to privatizing the Parking Department.

“Parking Ambassadors”

Lyle Lanley, I mean Dan McNutt, CEO of FLParkingCo, kept talking about Parking Ambassadors, as if they were highly trained concierges roving our streets and spreading joy. I suppose it sounds better than “Certified Parking Enforcement Specialists,” the current City staff designation, but come on now ambassadors? Really? “Right this way Sir and we’ll show you to your personal parking spot. Oh, let me get the door for you. Do you need directions?”

Of the Parking Ambassadors, the presentation said: “FLParkingCo will staff the operation with fully vetted and trained parking ambassadors, who will serve the City of Key West stakeholders, residents and visitors with the highest level of professionalism and dedication.” When you use euphemisms and double-speak like these for the people doing the enforcing and writing the tickets, you know something’s up.

FLParkingCo Goals Are Flimflam

Mr. McNutt’s presentation focused on two goals. The first is generating revenue by “managing a well-designed and properly maintained paid parking program available to the residents and visitors.” Hmmm… I wonder why our Parking Department never thought of that. How this differs from the current approach, wasn’t explained.

They also discussed a second lofty goal of “Improve the Parking Experience.” This goal seems to rest with those wonderous Parking Ambassadors as their presentation says on how they’ll improve the parking experience: “Hire, train, and staff the City of Key West’s parking program with qualified and screened personnel, who will serve as ‘Parking Ambassadors’ and adjudicate paid parking citations on a professional and friendly basis.” To implement this goal the presentation provides 3 objectives as follows:

  • “Develop a staffing plan in conjunction with seasonal demand and City needs
  • Prepare professional Parking Ambassadors to execute the program
  • Institute process-driven and value-add program focused on the highest levels of user satisfaction”

That’s it? How in the world does this “improve the parking experience?” More euphemisms and double-talk add up to flimflam.

Financials Don’t Add Up

The basic pitch is that FLParkingCo is offering the City of Key West a guaranteed $10M a year and 50% of the net profits above $10M to take over the functions of the Parking Department. Ohhhh… Ahhhh…. $10 million guaranteed. Sounds promising, eh? Well let’s look a bit more closely at the numbers.

FLParkingCo presented a six-year look at the City Parking Department’s financials from 2016 through a projected 2021. The spreadsheet included in their presentation shows the Department steadily increasing revenue from $6.2M in 2016 to a projected $10M in 2021. So, the City Parking Department is already hitting $10 million a year and they want Key West to share 50% of the profits above that? That’s the deal? Really?

Interestingly their spreadsheet only includes “gross terminal” or meter revenue. Where’s the revenue from tickets? Where’s the revenue from permits? Add in those numbers and the City’s Parking Department, which together in a typical year bring in between $1 and $1.5 million and you are already bringing in well more than $11 million. So, was FLParkingCo being deceptive in not showing the whole number?

According to the presentation spreadsheet the profit margin or Net Operating Income (NOI) for each year is in the high 80 percent range. And as we said, that doesn’t even include ticket and permit revenue. So, the City is already very efficient at this parking thing. Why on earth would we turn it over to a for profit concern and make potentially less?

FLParkingCo Doesn’t Have a History of Operating Municipal Parking

A look at FLParkingCo and their parent company Unified Parking Partners shows they operate parking for hotels and restaurants, hospitals, airports, commercial buildings and event parking. No doubt they do a very fine job in all cases as their testimonials attest to. But neither site provides examples about operating programs for cities. When Mayor Johnston asked Mr. McNutt about this, he said they didn’t operate any cities in Florida, but they do have some in other states. We couldn’t find them.

The Public Interest Isn’t Served

Regardless of the numbers or even if a private company could potentially bring Key West more revenue via privatization, it’s a bad idea to turn over a public asset to a private monopoly. Says the think tank Sustainable Cities about Parking Meters and the Perils of Privatization:

“Parking spots are the curb lane of your streets. Your streets are the primary public space in your city. They are intimately connected with everything that happens in the city, which is one reason parking policy is so politically controversial. On street parking – in contrast to garages, which are very different – is a fundamental and integral element of urban planning policy. In effect, these deals aren’t about just parking spots, they are assigning a property right interest in the biggest component of public space in the city to a private monopoly that doesn’t have the public’s best interests at heart… management of public space is, along with public safety, schools, and taxation, one of the single most important factors contributing to the attractiveness of a city as a place to live and do business. In an innovation era, in an era of ever more rapid change, locking yourself into a fixed policy for public space is a terrible mistake.”

We agree. Would having a contract with a private company preclude the City from removing parking spaces for bike lanes? How about taking away a few spots for parklets? Reducing a few spaces for sight line purposes or delivery services? What happens when there are special events and metered parking is temporarily unavailable? What happens if the City wants to expand Residential Permit Parking? Would the City have to reimburse the FLParkingCo for the “loss” of revenue in these cases as happens with the disastrous privatizing of city parking in Chicago?

Presumably the City Commission still would set the rate for meters, garages and permits. But when the City raises the fee, 50% of that money goes directly to the bottom line of the company, not the City.

What happens when the private company, in a rush to generate revenue goes on a predatory enforcement binge? Who takes those outraged calls? And can City Commissioners simply say well I’m sorry we don’t have control over that anymore? Not likely. Commissioners will get the blame but have no redress.

Let Shelbyville Hire FLParkingCo, Key West Should Just Say No

At the end of FLParkingCo’s presentation, I half expected him to say, as Lyle Lanely said to Mayor Quimby and the people of Springfield, “I come before you good people tonight with an idea. Probably the greatest…Aw, it’s not for you. It’s more a Shelbyville idea.” In the Simpsons episode Mayor Quimby quickly says, “Now, wait just a minute. We’re twice as smart as the people of Shelbyville. Just tell us your idea and we’ll vote for it.”

But when Mayor Johnston asked for questions to the presenter, she was met with crickets from the rest of the Commissioners on the dais. The Mayor asked a question, but the way she asked it, seemed like she was just being polite. One got the sense, that unlike the people of Springfield, the Key West Commission wasn’t impressed by this presentation. Either were we. Let’s hope this idea never sees the light of day.

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Chris Hamilton is founder of the local advocacy group Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown. He’s a native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led nationally renowned efforts promoting transit, bike, walk and smart growth for Arlington County, VA’s DOT. Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.