City Council hearing on red light camera program and parking revenue sheds no new light

At a joint hearing of City Council’s streets and education committees Friday, councilmembers spent the better part of two-and-a-half hours asking officials from the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA), the School District of Philadelphia, and the city’s budget office ostensibly “to investigate the allocation of funds from revenues generated by the Red Light Enforcement Program and the parking meter rate increase that took effect in 2014….” Instead most of the meeting was consumed by a refresher course on the PPA’s revenue streams.

Councilmen David Oh and Allan Domb called the hearing. Domb did not attend. Oh was joined by Councilmembers Helen Gym, Cindy Bass, Al Taubenberger, Jannie Blackwell and Mark Squilla, who chaired the hearing.

Oh spent the first 25 minutes of the hearing asking Philadelphia’s Finance Director Rob Dubow about the PPA’s finances. Dubow’s office gets monthly financial statements from the PPA and meets with the authority every other month to review the numbers. Oh did not ask Dubow about his office’s oversight of PPA finances. Rather, he asked Dubow basic questions, such as how PPA profits were allocated between the city and the School District, how much the city actually got, and, at one point, why the city’s figures didn’t match the PPA’s (because the city’s fiscal year ends on June 30th, and the PPA’s in March 31st, so each year the recorded numbers are slightly off, reflecting slightly different periods).

The PPA’s various operations are governed by a melange of different statutes, ordinances and other arrangements, noted PPA Deputy Executive Director Rick Dickson. After expenses, on-street parking revenues go to the City first, based on a formula that guarantees the first $35 million to the city, and the remainder to the School District. Money from PPA’s parking lots at Philadelphia International Airport go to the city’s aviation fund. Taxi and Limo fees go into a statutorily-mandated state fund that returns the money back to the PPA. Off-street parking revenue mainly goes to the city, with exceptions for the lots owned by the U.S. National Park Service. While complicated, most of this information can be found in the PPA’s audited financial statements.

Of the council members there, only Councilwoman Gym seemed determined to ask pointed questions of the officials brought before the hearing. Gym lambasted the PPA for, as she put it, failing to live up to a “promise” made by PPA Executive Director Vince Fenerty in 2014 that payments to the School District would increase $7.5 million following a parking meter rate hike approved by council that year. The School District only received $11 million, instead of a projected $19.5 million.

PPA’s Dickson said that pension costs rose unexpected from around $7 million a year to $13 million. The PPA uses the city’s pension plan, which is overseen by the Pension Board and, ultimately, by City Council—the PPA has no say in how much they must contribute into the pension fund. Dickson also blamed decreased revenues due to the papal visit and heavy snows.

Council hearings can be important. In theory, they can be used by City Council to hold the administration’s feet to the fire, ask probing questions, and lead to improved city services. In this case, an hour and fifty-four minutes passed before any council member mentioned red light cameras, even though that was the hearing’s primary purpose.

The red light camera program, officially known as the Automated Red Light Enforcement (ARLE) program, is administered by the PPA pursuant to a state law authorizing red light cameras in 29 municipalities across the state. So far only Philadelphia and Abington have installed cameras, and only Philadelphia’s make money. Those profits are deposited into a PennDOT fund for traffic enhancements; Philadelphia gets back about half, with the rest used to fund improvements across the Commonwealth. The ARLE law is set to expire in 2017, and Oh said he hopes legislators in Harrisburg will allow Philadelphia to keep more of it’s red light camera ticket revenues.

Oh could have asked for a briefing from PPA, or perhaps by calling up his colleague, Councilman Al Taubenberger, who sits on the PPA board.

Indeed, Taubenberger served as the PPA’s defender during the hearing, providing the authority a friendly foil to counteract Councilwoman Helen Gym’s blistering broadsides. When Gym elicited a response from School District CFO Uri Monson that suggested that the PPA paid out $1 million in bonuses in 2014, Taubenberger asked Dubow back to the stand to clarify that these were signing bonuses for union employees—it was a negotiated one-time lump sum payment under a new collective bargaining agreement.

No one questioned whether Taubenberger’s participation in the hearing presented a conflict of interest. At one point, PPA Chairman Vince Fenerty explicitly acknowledged his role on the PPA Board.

Gym managed to extract a commitment from the PPA and Dubow to include School District representatives in their meetings every two months with the finance director’s office. Gym pushed hard to get the PPA to concede to the need for a forensic or programmatic audit—a deeper look than just the regular independent financial audit prepared. Pennsylvania’s Attorney General has standing statutory authority to audit the PPA.

Councilwomen Jannie Blackwell and Cindy Bass both did not ask any questions during the hearing. 

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