Atlanta Councilman H. Lamar Willis has pretty clear 20/20 hindsight. With over $10 million (as of August 2008) in unpaid traffic tickets hanging in the balance–and with little legal means to collect on them–Willis says cutting the parking management staff from 28 to nine employees in May was "a mistake." And while he and city have realized this, they have been slow to act on the best real answer: privatization.
In April 2008, the city of Atlanta accepted bids from companies interested in running the city's parking ticket and meter collection operation, an activity now performed by the City's Public Works Department. The announced privatization initiative comes as Mayor Shirley Franklin's administration struggles with the challenge of closing a projected $140 million budget gap in the FY 2008-09 fiscal year. City officials estimate that Atlanta is currently spending $1.3 million on parking enforcement annually (including the costs for the system's employees), while it collects roughly $3 million from parking fines and meter fares.
Those revenues may dry up, given the budget shortfall, if the privatization effort does not succeed. Cash-strapped Atlanta was forced to make deep personnel cuts in May, laying off 75 percent of the parking enforcement staff. Those who lost their jobs were responsible for fixing parking meters, collecting the funds, and–most importantly–writing citations. Before the layoffs the city wrote an average of 13,000 tickets a month, now that number is down to 5,000. Parking tickets were bringing in $240,000 monthly, but post-layoffs are generating just $80,000.
Department of Public Works commissioner Sandra Jennings said in May that the winning bidder for Atlanta's parking meter system would not be able to take over the service until at least August–but that time has come, and the longer the contracting process drags out, the longer the city will continue to lose funds. According to Department spokeswoman Tenee Hawkins, the city expects the privatization effort bring in revenues above what they were generating before the staff cuts. Officials are also open to exploring ideas from the winning bidder on how to expand the parking program. Any contract would require City Council approval before proceeding to implementation.
This story was first published in Reason's Annual Privatization Report 2008. To read more articles like this see the State and Local Update section of APR 2008 or the Privatization and Government Reform page on our website.