Park Atlanta Curbing Freedom

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Richard Dawson passed away earlier this month at the age of 79.  Perhaps best known as the host of the game show Family Feud, he was also a recurring character in the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes.  One of his most intriguing roles was as the host of a futuristic game show host in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Running Man.

The movie featured Schwarzenegger’s character playing a televised game where he competed in various death matches against others in an attempt to gain his freedom after an arrest.   The concept was that by providing entertainment for the public, he was paying his debt to society and had the ability to gain his freedom. 

The game, however, was rigged.  His was both framed for his crime and the rules were set so that no one ever actually gained his freedom.  It was merely a ruse to cut the cost to the state of maintaining prisons and to provide a money making venture for those on the inside.

Georgia has long had prisons that are operated by private companies.  These don’t parallel the concept of this movie as there is still a separation between the arrest, trial, and conviction or acquittal of a suspect and the profit motive of those who try to run an efficient correctional institution.

In short, it still costs the state to incarcerate a prisoner.  There is no monetary incentive for the state to imprison someone.  To the contrary, Georgia passed sentencing reform this year in order to reduce the number of people sent to prison largely for budgetary reasons.

There are, however, creeping levels of state power where private companies are allowed to be the police, judge, and jury over Georgia’s citizens.  The expanding nature of these roles, and the lack of sufficient checks and balances on the private companies, deserves additional scrutiny.

Red light cameras are perhaps the best known example of extending police power to private companies.  A bit over a decade ago, municipalities rushed to install these devices under the guise of safety.  Many, however, also reduced the amount of time allowed for yellow lights.  This gave less time for a car to react to the light change, and consequently, increased the revenue for both the cities using them and the private company operating them.

When state laws added restrictions and minimum yellow light times for the cameras, many became a net loss to the cities that were using them.  Despite the claims of how much they had improved safety when they were profitable, many municipalities dumped them as soon as they went from being a cash cow to a liability. 

The city of Atlanta has moved one step beyond red light cameras.  They now outsource their entire parking enforcement operation to a private company operating under the name Park Atlanta.  The city entered into a long term contract in exchange for Park Atlanta to invest in the replacement of the city’s old parking meters with new smart meters.  The number of meters was also greatly expanded, including new streets where parking was formerly free.

The initial reaction from citizens and local businesses was harsh.  Park Atlanta’s aggressive enforcement caught many off guard.  When the city attempted to adjust to citizens’ concerns, they were reminded of the eight-figure penalty if the city ends the contract early.  Instead, the city is negotiating higher fines for violators.

The problem, however, is that Park Atlanta is acting as police, judge, and jury.  Numerous complaints have been reported where motorists claim that they were issued tickets when there was still time left on their meter.  Former Park Atlanta employees have complained about aggressive ticket quotas that they must write, implying that many are writing tickets to innocent motorists in order to keep their jobs.

Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore is not impressed with Park Atlanta, and objected to the increased fines during recent council discussion.  “I am not interested in feeding the monster, especially without any controls” she said. 

Privatization in and of itself is neither good nor bad.  Privatization without proper controls on the private contractor is a recipe for trouble.  Privatization of police power without proper controls incentivizes private entities to make money by infringing on the freedom of the innocent.

It’s not on the scale of Running Man, but Atlanta’s parking contract is incompatible with the concept of a free society.  The city should run away from Park Atlanta.

28 comments

  1. seekingtounderstand says:

    Great piece of writing. Thanks
    Now only if I could figure out what Governor Deals reforms on our system will lead to. He had nothing to do with the gutting of the GBI funding which lead to a loss of checks and balances for would be grafters.

  2. CobbGOPer says:

    “The city should run away from Park Atlanta.”

    I’m sure the city would, but there’s the little matter of that eight-figure penalty for ending the contract early…

    • seenbetrdayz says:

      Those contracts piss me off to no end. Stuff like this should be put up to a public vote before even being enacted, at the very least, with the understanding that it’s not something you can just undo overnight.

      It seems highly sleazy to me the way a handful of people on a city council can implement such a program and then have the benefit of *hiding* behind a contract before the people realize what just happened. “Well folks, I’d really like for the voice of the people to be heard now that we’ve already installed these cameras, but oops!!! Looks like we invalidated your wishes with a contract. Too bad, so sad. Just wait 8 years and you can take them down.”

      • rrrrr says:

        Based on this, it seems Gwinnet’s leaders while on THEIR way out did teach your “folks” a thing or two …

        Decade long contracts absolutely RULE!

      • bgsmallz says:

        Why have those council members? Let’s just have a full out democracy on any issue related to anything.

        Derp.

        It’s called representative government. And in Georgia, that means that the council votes on anything to do with everything except tax increases…at which point representative government dissolves and the ‘voice of the people’ must be heard.

        • seenbetrdayz says:

          I agree with that on a large scale. 300 million people could never be happily governed with a direct democracy at the federal level (no matter how hard they’re currently trying). But at the city level (okay, maybe ATL is still a big city)? Hell, even at the state level, do we not have, at least, propositions on the ballot? It’s not that hard to do. “Derp”

          Here’s something to chew on when it comes to “representative government”. Is it really “representative” to engage in contracts that are binding after the government has been changed? (i.e. no longer “represents” the people). And if they are thrown out, should Park Atlanta have done business with a government that was so short-lived?

          That might teach some of these ‘private’ companies a thing or two about ‘doing business with government.’ It is, and should be, a risky venture.

          I’d be interested to know just how many of those city council members even bothered to get out in the public and find out what some opinions might have been about privately contracting out the parking enforcement. It’s kind of hard to “represent” the people when you don’t even bother to find out from time to time, what they’re thinking.

          • seenbetrdayz says:

            And, I haven’t been through downtown Atlanta in years, but I’d be hard pressed to dismiss parking in that city as nonchalantly as ‘any issue related to anything’.

  3. johnl says:

    If Atlanta is not careful it will consume itself. Gouging residents and (more importantly )tourists is not good business. Why should I go downtown and pay for parking when I can go somewhere else and park for free?

    • bgsmallz says:

      I think that is kind of the point…parking isn’t free. There is a cost associated with providing a paved spot of public or private lot for you to put your car on…just because there wasn’t a meter there 4 years ago doesn’t mean that it didn’t cost anything for you to park there…it just means someone else was paying for it.

      There are literally thousands of places to park just about anywhere in the city of Atlanta. Street parking, decks, etc. There is an abundance of cabs and some destinations are accessible by Marta. I doubt anyone is getting priced out of doing business in the city because of Park Atlanta. One exception would be Mitchell Street…I’m sure there are a few others.

      I think Charlie asks the right questions here but I’m not sure I come to the same answer.

      Two key points that must be addressed…the city needs to look at the appeal process and enforcement practices. Things like broken meters and giving tickets wrongfully can be simply rectified with a pretty small amount of paper (receipts and visual evidence from cameras). Simply installing video cameras with time stamps on the Park Atlanta cars that are constantly buzzing about would go a long way in answering questions about how long a car has been in a spot. Also, I would assume that false enforcement, if encouraged or actively pursued, would be a breach of the agreement. However, I would be willing to venture that a significant number of people that are complaining actually went over time, etc., but providing an easy appeal process for those who feel wronged would be a great idea. The second issue is addressing specific areas where ‘pay to park’ or strict enforcement will truly kill or significantly harm demand. Mitchell Street is a clear and obvious example…those poor folks. If the city isn’t closing the street for a zombie filming they are scaring folks away b/c of parking fees…and there just aren’t many convenient decks to that row of businesses. I’m sure the city can work a bit of a modification of the agreement if writing out a few streets from coverage is a problem…and if they can’t, well….

      It’s a catch-22…if the parking system doesn’t pay for itself, it is a boondoggle. If the city generates a profit from its parking spots, it’s fleecing. That leaves a pretty small target for anyone to hit.

      • peachstealth says:

        Streets aren’t free either. They’re paid for with motor fuel tax. So is the portion used for parking. If you’re buying gasoline or Diesel, you’re paying for it.

        • Daddy Got A Gun says:

          I’ve watched this parking issue over the many years starting in Philadelphia 40 years ago and now here in Atlanta. When the program starts the city makes claims about needing meters so delivery trucks can find a spot to unload, then its to fix the problem of cars being parked in front of business for long periods of time and customers shop elsewhere for lack of parking, then it flows to parking fees/taxes reduce property taxes, then we can’t afford to reduce property taxes and the fees are needed for critical services like free cell phones for the bums and leather chairs for bureaucrats, and now “we got a contract that we can’t break”.

          This program is a revenue generator; a TAX on hapless travelers. To claim its funding the construction of the roads is false. Those roads are paid for by the property taxes of the business and residents and to some degree fuel taxes.

          If the city wants to do the program right, it needs to focus on installing meters where there is a community economic interest to do so, such as around retail blocks so that customer’s can find a parking spot and neighborhoods around the stadiums so that the residents can park there. It should have free parking on weekends (I’m not sure if that happens here in ATL). Right now, the program has evolved to putting a meter where ever Park Atlanta can make a return on investment.

          I’m not a lawyer but I suspect Park Atlanta issuing fines is not kosher. With the red light camera’s a Law Enforcement Officer in that jurisdiction issues the fine. In this case, its a private citizen/business (Park Atlanta) in essence issuing the fine which in theory should pursued via small claims court.

    • SallyForth says:

      +100 Outsourcing police power is flat-ass crazy. Such power rests with public servants, public law enforcement officials.

      Next thing we know, they’ll be hiring for-profit companies, like Blackwater, Halliburton, et.al., to conduct wars…..

  4. Jas says:

    I was one who received a a ticket with time still left on the meter. I appealed the fine via parkatlanta’s website and sent all the relevant forms in but never received a response. I refuse to pay my ticket to thi day.

    Also recently while dining down near crescent avenue, I was almost issued a ticket as I attempted to pay a meter a block away since the one closet to the space was malfunctioning. I was appalled at how many times the enforcement car circled trying to ticket people an I warned about 2 other parkers that almost met the same fate.

    I hate these people with a passion but moreso the Atlanta City Council for their cab grab.

    • Rick Day says:

      unless there is an APD uniform officer driving, I ALWAYS flip them off with the MIDDLE finger when they drive by. I absolutely detest them. Living at Spring and 4th we are surrounded by meters.

      Frikkin’ vultures, they are!

      • CobbGOPer says:

        Can’t stand ’em either, but they’re just doing the job their bosses told them to do. They circle like vultures because if they don’t make their quota they could lose their jobs, and honestly if you’re working a job like that, finding another one could be severely problematic because it’s likely you’re not particularly skilled in anything useful.

        The bad guys here are the City Council and the ParkAtlanta executives.

        • bgsmallz says:

          Wait….so if a Park Atlanta employee is busting tail to catch as many scofflaws as possible, that’s bad management, but if a city of Atlanta employee is loafing and not catching scofflaws, that’s also bad management?

          What are we trying to protect here? People’s ability to park at will with no repercussions or a violation of rights?

          You know…if our tolerance for an efficient government only lasts until we can’t get away with parking wherever and whenever we want…well, anyway.

      • ZazaPachulia says:

        If you’ve been to traffic court downtown, you’d realize that a lot of the Park Atlanta are off-duty police making a little cash on the side. Maybe they’re vultures, but most of the time they’re wearing their APD unis in court…

        Speaking of which, are these cops on the clock when they’re testifying in court against the hordes of people that show up every week to contest their fines? And how much is the city spending on court costs to deal with these mundane cases?

        Any time you privatize something like this, there are lots of “hidden” and secondary costs that end up getting picked up by the public.

        Same for private prisons. Georgia’s private prisons are expected to uphold the state and U.S. Constitution and meet the terms of their contracts, but I am willing to bet that things like recidivism rates, likelihood of parole, job training, group therapy and the like are not built into those contracts. Prisons are rarely cheaper “privatized” unless they truly are in the private sector–no government auxiliary support and real private sector competition. Get better lawyers to write better contracts (incentivizing things like low recidivism rates) and the private prison system could save us money and benefit us in the process.

        The term privatization is misleading in Park Atlanta’s case (and others). What Atlanta actually did was outsource parking enforcement. And they need to can the lawyers who advised them to sign such a lousy contract. You better believe that a general counsel in the private sector would lose her job over horrendous advice like that.

    • Ed says:

      “I was one who received a a ticket with time still left on the meter. I appealed the fine via parkatlanta’s website and sent all the relevant forms in but never received a response. I refuse to pay my ticket to thi day.”

      Have fun explaining this to a credit agency… Just a word of warning.

  5. Rick Day says:

    If you were a lib’rel:

    1. conservatives would be slamming you for advocating ‘big government’ over ‘private enterprise’
    2 rail about your call for ‘regulation’, lecture about unfettered free markets and
    3. imply that you were ‘pro crime’….

    …until they get a ticket.

    • Rick Day says:

      how does the old saying go?

      “A Conservative is a Liberal who lost their job”
      “A Libertarian is a Conservative who has been arrested”

  6. ted in bed says:

    I’ll bet the restaurants and business in Atlanta are losing more in future sales than the city is extracting from hapless parkers.

    If you were a tourist and got a ticket, would you return? Would you tell your friends? My Cobb neighbors couldn’t conceive of going downtown to eat dinner when there are so many convenient options which include free parking.

    • bgsmallz says:

      Yes…I’m sure it is the parking that scares them away and not the 25 mile drive from Cobb. It’s a silly idea anyway…most dining destinations have valet parking, with much of it complimentary when you eat there. (and yes, I understand that Vinings is only 11 miles from downtown…it was exaggeration)

      There is zero evidence this is hurting business except in a few places. (see Mitchell St.) And yes, I’m sure tourists that get tickets return…do people stop driving I-16 just because Laurens Co. is a speed trap? And I could be wrong, but I assume Chicago and New York give out plenty of tickets to ‘tourists’ and cost many times over to park in garages.

      This seems to be a large issue with folks that live in Midtown and other areas intown and with some business owners that rely on short in and out shoppers.

      • Daddy Got A Gun says:

        You won’t see the evidence of the lost business. When customer’s go elsewhere, they don’t call or write. They move on. They tell their friends and neighbors about being ticketed or booted.

        My wife’s car got booted at a restaurant in the Brookhaven Shopping Center. Apparently, she went into the restaurant without getting the required windshield ticket or something like that.

        She came out at 10PM and her car is booted and nobody was around. She went back into the restaurant to find help and they contacted the towing company that had a contract to boot every car belonging to non-customers. 2 hours later the towing company shows up and removes the boot.

        Do you think we bad mouth that restaurant every chance we get? You betcha. Have we been back? Nope. When my wife’s company entertains out of town guests do they consider that restaurant? Nope. Does the restaurant know how much business they lost? Nope. Do we cringe everytime we pass the shopping center? You betcha.

        As for the distance from Cobb, its not very far and doesn’t take much time outside of rush hour to get to mid-town and downtown. Most of my neighbors go to Atlanta restaurants all the time. In fact, the restaurant was recommended by a neighbor (after hearing my wife’s story, he hasn’t gone back).

        Atlanta is remarkably stupid if it thinks $20-$90 parking tickets won’t impact business.

  7. saltycracker says:

    “Privatization in and of itself is neither good nor bad. Privatization without proper controls on the private contractor is a recipe for trouble.”

    Makes no difference, Atlanta can hire a company or do it themselves and it will fail.
    They are incapable of administering the current approach.

    Suggestion: Street parking by monthly permit or purchased receipts.
    Display it or be ticketed/towed.
    Garage parking at a flat daily fee or a discounted fee with a rechargable card.

    Here is one city’s approach. It is sweet for the frequent “flyers” & stiff on the occassional.
    The parking garage is $10 @ day or $1 @ day with a rechargable park now card.

    http://www.staugustinegovernment.com/sites/park/index.cfm

  8. freebird says:

    I happen to live downtown and use the metered parking intermittently. Overall I’d have to say I’m pretty happy with the administration of it. The biggest mistake the city made, in my opinion, was to install a bunch of coin-operated meters a few years before ParkAtlanta came onto the scene and then not bother to ticket anyone. So they basically laid the groundwork for this PR nightmare by getting everyone accustomed to committing parking violations left and right and then alakazam! ParkAtlanta was brought in, and enforcement went from maybe 2% effectiveness to 99.9%. Cue the backlash.

    The reason I like ParkAtlanta is that I can now consistently find a spot pretty close to where I’d like to park (within a block or two at most). When there was zero enforcement it was pretty much a nightmare to find a spot, and sometimes I’d end up double-parking if I just needed to run inside for 5 minutes (as folks would regularly park for 48 hours in the 15 minute loading/unloading spots – no fear of being ticketed). I could blame the APD for not enforcing the parking laws at the time, but let’s face it, do we really want the police focusing their energies on parking enforcement? We still have a lot of violent crime in the city (if not usually right downtown). When ParkAtlanta was brought in, I was happy to see the old coin meters getting torn out and replaced by ones that would accept credit cards (just like the ones I’d see in other cities like Portland, OR) and the highly effective enforcement to go along with it.

    I will concede that whoever designed the user interface to the ParkAtlanta meters was clearly smoking something, but once you figure out the system it only takes maybe 15 seconds to pay by credit card. With a few exceptions, most businesses are not going to see a negative impact from this contract, as very few businesses I know of are substantially dependent on free street parking. Downtown businesses are almost all based on foot traffic. As you get further out into say O4W or VaHi that changes, and so perhaps some tweaking is in order, but honestly when I’ve parked in those neighborhoods it’s not been where there was metered parking anyhow.

    So, in summary, the contract with ParkAtlanta raises revenue for the city, creates an ordered street parking situation out of anarchy, and a few jobs to boot for the meter enforcers. It’s really the bungling politicians who made a hash of this.

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