INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Following more than a half-year of intense political pressure and media scrutiny, the Philadelphia Parking Authority has cut costs substantially and will transfer $6.6 million more to the city's general fund and the School District of Philadelphia than it did last fiscal year.
In December, after a series of reports in The Inquirer and Daily News had drawn attention to the authority's free-spending ways, the agency promised Mayor-elect Michael Nutter that it would transfer at least $26.25 million to the city and schools in 2008.
Through a series of cuts - to executive salaries, consulting contracts, staffing and vehicle use - the agency managed to beat that goal, and will transfer a total of $27.2 million to the city's general fund and schools. Of that, $2.2 million is earmarked for the schools.
"I think this represents a great effort," Nutter said yesterday. "This couldn't come at a better time, given the school district's continuing financial challenges."
Nutter said he would continue to press the parking authority to operate more efficiently.
"We made every effort to reduce costs and increase revenue for the city," authority Executive Director Vincent Fenerty said in a brief statement. Fenerty was unavailable for further comment Friday afternoon.
The authority made an additional $33.1 million from its airport parking operations, about the same as last year, and that amount will be transferred to the city's aviation fund. Federal law requires airport parking profits be used to defray the cost of running the airport.
The parking authority has been state-run since 2001, when Republican legislators in Harrisburg led by State Rep. John Perzel seized control of the patronage-rich agency from the city.
By agreement, the first $25 million in agency profits from its enforcement operations would go the city's general fund, while any money above that would be earmarked for the schools. Until now, however, the agency struggled mightily to reach the $25 million threshold.
News accounts over the last six months documented some of the reasons why: massive payroll growth, high salaries for top executives and heavy use of consultants.
Advocacy organizations, such as Parents United for Public Education, began showing up at authority board meetings demanding money for schools, and public officials from Mayor Nutter to Gov. Rendell to House Speaker Dennis O'Brien suggested the authority needed to reform.
The authority responded by shedding consultants to the tune of $192,000 a year; trimming the pay of top executives by 6 percent, saving $141,500; reducing staff through attrition, saving an estimated $1 million; and stripping mid-level managers of their vehicle take-home rights.
Whether the cuts are enough to satisfy agency critics remains to be seen.
"It's certainly better than where we've been in the past, but we're still awaiting some outside scrutiny of the agency's finances to ensure that they're doing the best they can do," said Helen Gym, a leader of Parents United.
The authority still faces the prospect of a Rendell-ordered audit, and O'Brien has retained a former federal prosecutor to review the agency's consulting contracts. Little progress has been made on either inquiry to date, however.
"We are still attempting to obtain the release of the parking authority's contracts," said attorney L. George Parry, who is leading O'Brien's inquiry. "So far, the parking authority has not seen fit to release those contracts to me."