Literature is full of mythical islands like Shangri-La, isolated worlds-unto-themselves whose residents are immortal and nothing bad ever happens. Here in Philadelphia, that Shangri-La is the Philadelphia Parking Authority. Amid years of scrutiny, scandals, and blistering reports, the PPA remains virtually unscathed. Even its response to a new audit from the Controller’s Office more or less says, “Go away and leave us alone.”
The new audit reviewed the PPA’s staffing and revenues, comparing operations with cities around the country, and found high staffing levels, elevated executive salaries, and issues with patronage.
The controller compared PPA street meter operations with a handful of cities like Boston, Portland, Ore., and Miami. Portland, for example, has 14,000 metered spaces and generates $36 million in street meter revenues with 111 officers. Pittsburgh generates over $20 million in street meter revenue with 83 employees. Meanwhile, the 15,000 metered spaces covered by the PPA generated $37 million in 2018 — while employing 652 parking enforcement officers.
The audit also found higher executive salaries than in other cities, excessive salary increases for executives, and a wide gap between executive salaries and that of its officers.
The audit recommends a number of improvements, primarily centered on creating a leaner workforce and increasing transparency of its budget so that the PPA can increase the portion of revenues it gives to the School District (the remainder of its revenues after expenses goes to the city).
In its response to the audit, the PPA insists it is like no other parking operation in any city and shouldn’t be compared with any. It also says it disagrees with most of the controller’s findings. This kind of arrogance is startling but not surprising since this agency answers to no one. Since its operations are funded by the fines and fees it collects, its budget is not subject to approval or scrutiny by any government entity. On questions of salaries, workforce, and budget, it only answers to its board.
And what a board it is — presiding over scandals, resisting audits, and being subject to scathing reports from the auditor general.
The PPA Shangri-La was created in 2001 when city control of the authority was wrested away by the state, in a midnight move by then-House Speaker John Perzel — who went on to serve a prison term for conspiracy and theft. The rationale for state control was so the PPA could be better managed and generate $45 million a year for the schools. PPA contributions have never reached that level. Last year, the PPA generated $16 million for the schools; this year, because of the pandemic, it will contribute nothing.
In 2016, the PPA was racked by the scandal of its executive director Vince Fenerty, the subject of sexual harassment complaints. Not long after Fenerty took the helm in 2006, a harassment complaint was filed against him and settled. A second complaint arose in 2016 — at which point the board didn’t fire him because it “forgot” about the first complaint. Fenerty ultimately resigned.
How the board and its chair survived that is a mystery. Following the Fenerty scandal, the state auditor general conducted two audits of the PPA that found that due to shoddy management, the School District lost out on $80 million over a five year period; the bulk of that was in uncollected parking tickets, and the rest on questionable expenses.
The controller’s audit noted improvements have been made in the last few years, but given that the bar is so low, that hardly calls for a celebration.
The state legislature certainly seems content to let things lie. But it’s time for the PPA to return to city control. In order for that to happen, the board would have to vote to dissolve itself, or the state legislature would have to take action. Neither is likely.
A more efficient path to change might be a hard look at the board. Why aren’t there term limits on this board, especially one that presides over a long-troubled agency? The board certainly proved itself an embarrassment in its handling of the Fenerty disaster. Calls for the board to resign or be replaced fell on deaf ears. Its dismissal of the latest audit suggests nothing will change.
As long as nothing changes, Philly’s Shangri-La remains alive — and untouched and unquestioned.