Mildred "Pinky" McGlothlin of Troy Hill told council members not to sell city assets at a hearing on proposed plans to avoid state takeover of Pittsburgh’s pension fund. (Photo/Kelly Thomas)

 

A diverse group of Northsiders spoke with a united voice at a City Council hearing Oct. 12 on the mayor’s parking lease plan: Don’t sell off city assets, they said.

The meeting at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Central Northside was one of many hearings across the city. Council President Darlene Harris presided over the meeting, and Councilmen Daniel Lavelle and Bruce Kraus, and Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith were present to listen to residents’ complaints about the lease plan.

Harris, Councilman Patrick Dowd and Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak unveiled a new plan to avoid a state takeover earlier that day. The new plan, which is sponsored by those three city council members with the support of city Controller Michael Lamb, leases the city meter system and certain garages to the Parking Authority for $220 million, in the form of a bond, for 20 years.

The city needs to make a $220 million payment into its pension fund by year’s end to bring its funding level to 50 percent, or the state will assume control of pension assets by 2015. Under state control, the city would have to pay $25 million more than it does now into the fund each year.

The new plan, which is not supported by all members of council, comes after Mayor Luke Ravenstahl proposed leasing the garages for $452 million to LAZ Parking and J.P. Morgan for 50 years.

The new plan requires the Parking Authority to modernize garages and the meter system with 12 months of assuming control. LAZ Parking has stated it will renovate the garages and modernize the meter system if council accepts its lease proposal.

No matter which option council votes on, parking rates will go up, but Ravenstahl’s plan includes more severe rates hikes. Northside residents seemed to accept parking increases, as long as the city retains control of garages and meters.

Ed Graf, owner of Priory Hospitality Group, spoke against the mayor’s plan because it takes away the city’s parking flexibility. Currently, he said, the city can close streets for community events like the Pumpkin Fest in West Park “without having to deal with someone in Boston.”

Under Ravenstahl’s plan, if the city leases the meters, it will have to pay Boston-based LAZ Parking for lost revenue when it closes streets. The city would also be required to compensate LAZ for lost revenue during serious weather events, such as the snowstorm that left many vehicles stranded at meters for much of February.

The city will not have to pay the Parking Authority for lost parking revenue if it adopts the new plan.

Northside Leadership Conference Executive Director Mark Fatla agreed with Graf. If someone is willing to pay the city $452 million for a lease, “We should do a better job of exploiting those assets,” he said.

Mildred McGlothlin of Troy Hill said, “This is a quick fix. So please, don’t sell off our assets. That’s a no brainer. Never do that.”

“We don’t need some fool from Boston or Chicago to tell us what to do [with our parking assets],” said Pete Bellisario, president of the Brighton Heights Citizens Federation.

John Graf, speaking on behalf of the Western Pennsylvania Chapter of the Restaurant Association, expressed concern about Ravenstahl’s plan because there is no guarantee the city won’t be faced with the exact same problem in a few years, he said.

After residents gave their testimony, council members addressed them. All except Kail-Smith expressed similar concerns over leasing public assets for such a long time and losing out on potential revenue over that time period, estimated by a study commissioned by council to be more than $2 billion.

Lavelle asked that residents stay engaged throughout the process, but declined to say how he would vote. “Please know that your input does not fall on deaf ears,” he said.

Kraus told attendees their opinions were representative of what he’s heard across the board. He said he will wait until Thursday, when a representative from the state will explain to council exactly what a “state takeover” means to decide whether or not to support council’s plan to sell assets to the Parking Authority for 20 years.

Kail-Smith said that she was not fond of any of the plans, but that the new city council plan was not an option for her, and she would decide between a state takeover and the mayor’s lease plan.

“This is not going to be an easy decision,” she said. “No matter what we do, someone won’t be pleased.”

Harris spoke last, before she adjourned the hearing.

“I’ll be 107 years old. I don’t know if I’ll make it to 107 years until the lease is up,” she said of the mayor’s plan.

She agreed with Kraus that most of her constituents have spoken out against the mayor’s lease plan.

“The leasing is not what I’m hearing, and I’m also not hearing for a state takeover, so that’s why we worked out this plan,” Harris said.

McGlothlin suggested the city start a lottery to benefit to pension fund. Council agreed it was a good idea, but said it’s too late now to save the pension from state takeover.

“I’ll buy tickets,” McGlothlin said.

Kraus laughed. “I’ll sell you one tonight!”