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PPA falls short on payments

Halfway through its fiscal year, the Philadelphia Parking Authority has fallen $2.65 million short in its monthly payments to the City of Philadelphia's general fund.

Halfway through its fiscal year, the Philadelphia Parking Authority has fallen $2.65 million short in its monthly payments to the City of Philadelphia's general fund.

The chief culprit appears to be overspending in a familiar area: personnel.

The authority's parking-enforcement division, which sends its first $25 million in annual profits to the city and anything beyond that to the public schools, spent $2.44 million more than budgeted on pensions, payroll and benefits through September, according to the agency's financial statements.

If the current financial picture holds, the Philadelphia School District will get nothing, just as it did in six of the seven years since leading Republicans engineered a state takeover of the agency.

But in a written response to questions from the Inquirer, the authority predicted it would rally and "meet budget expectations by the end of the year." As of Sept. 30 - the most recent figures available - the authority had transferred $9.81 million to the city, well short of the budgeted $12.46 million.

The Inquirer limited its review of the agency's financial statements to the enforcement division, since that is the only unit that contributes substantial dollars to the city's general fund and, potentially, to the schools.

Most of the division's overspending on personnel - $1.95 million - has been on pensions.

Though the authority is a state agency, it participates in the city's pension plan, which on Feb. 12 increased the authority's contribution rate for many employees by a third.

The increase was retroactive to July 1, 2006, and the Parking Authority's share of the past-due tab was $1.08 million, said Linda Donovan, the city's pension program administrator.

The Parking Authority didn't anticipate a retroactive charge that big, nor did it expect its current payments to be so much larger. Because the authority's fiscal calendar is different from the city's, the news of the pension hikes came too late for the authority to adjust its budget, spokeswoman Linda Miller said.

To a far lesser extent, the enforcement division is also over budget on payroll and benefits. In its statement, the authority dismissed its payroll overspending ($267,000) as minor, and predicted those costs would be "in line" with the budget by the end of the fiscal year. The statement blamed increased health-care costs for pushing the division $218,000 over its benefits budget.

In addition to the higher-than-expected personnel spending, a dip in parking-ticket revenue has helped clip the agency's monthly payments to the city.

Through September, the agency collected $31.83 million in ticket revenue, $1.84 million less than budgeted. In its written response to Inquirer questions, the authority attributed the drop to "a decline in ticket issuance by the Police Department."

Police have been writing up fewer parking violations in recent years while focusing more on violent crime. That might be sound policing strategy, but it has hurt the Parking Authority's bottom line.

But drivers, beware. The agency remains confident that it will write enough tickets to meet the budget.

"Expanded PPA patrols and enhanced collection efforts are expected to offset that revenue loss by the end of the fiscal year," the agency statement read.

Even if the authority meets its year-end budget, it seems clear there will be no money for the school district.

Only once since the state takeover in 2001 has the authority topped the $25 million threshold, leading to a $4 million transfer to the schools. And that was the product of an accounting error that transferred revenue from the previous fiscal year to 2004.

In recent weeks, The Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News have unearthed a host of possible explanations for the agency's financial performance, including unusually generous executive compensation, expensive consulting contracts for lobbyists and public-relations pros, high pension payments, and widespread overstaffing.

The authority has reacted by taking steps to cut costs, such as trimming the salaries of senior executives by 6 percent and reassigning 18 authority vehicles used by agency managers.

The agency also has said it will not replace some managers who leave in the next year, and it anticipates that will save $1 million.

Even the holiday party is on the chopping block. On Nov. 30, the authority notified employees that the agency "is not able to financially support a holiday party," and that for the show to go on, employees would have to kick in $25 apiece. Guests will cost extra.

The impact of the cuts on the agency's figures this year remains to be seen, but the trims so far have not impressed some of the authority's loudest critics: parents of public-school students.

"What they've put forward has been nothing but the most minimal token gestures," said Helen Gym, a member of the Philadelphia organization Parents United for Public Education. "Unless something really changes at the Parking Authority, that stuff is going to be seen as more insulting than anything else."

One Parking Authority division appears on track for a solid year. Through August, the agency's airport garages had generated $900,000 more for the city's aviation fund than budgeted. Federal law, however, requires that money to be used at the airport.