In December 2015, a state budget stalemate had the Philadelphia School District scrambling to calculate how many days into the new year schools would be able to stay open before closing their doors or resorting to borrowing.
Meanwhile, in December 2015, the Philadelphia Parking Authority was spending nearly $3,000 on Visa gift cards to boost employee morale – just one of a rash of outrageous expenses incurred by the agency that literally took money away from the schools.
And that's not the worst finding of two audits of the PPA released by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale last week.
In all, DePasquale estimated that over a five-year period since 2012, the Parking Authority has failed to deliver $78.9 million that the School District should have received, a result of shoddy-to-nonexistent management. The bulk of that is millions in uncollected parking tickets. The remainder include questionable expenses – like the gift cards, as well as tuition reimbursements, golf outings, and lavishly catered meals for board meetings.
The auditor general's office made a record 117 recommendations to fix this: The most important one is that the PPA be returned to local control. That should happen – though a Republican-majority state House with a very high shame threshold is unlikely to take speedy action on this. On the other hand, legislators are due to vote on returning the School Reform Commission to the city; maybe they can add the PPA as an amendment.
Back in 2001, then-House Speaker John Perzel – who would later serve a prison term for conspiracy and theft – orchestrated a state takeover of the PPA in order to provide more funding for the schools, which he thought then-Mayor John Street was ignoring. Parking revenues are split between the city and schools.
A few years later, the reign of mismanagement by PPA Executive Director Vince Fenerty began. Not long after Fenerty took the helm, the first sexual-harassment complaint against him was filed – and quickly settled. The second complaint arose in 2015 and the board was so incompetent that instead of firing him, it came up with a set of "don't touch other people" rules that would have made a second grader feel condescended to.
In addition to his harassment history, Fenerty – whom DePasquale called "a tyrant" – controlled all hiring, gave overgenerous raises to his cronies, and manipulated compensatory and vacation leave time records for his senior management and himself, which, in the end, allowed him to walk away from the job with $227,000. In our view, that figure should be added to the total amount robbed from educating children.
The two audits show a corrupt and contemptible public agency that was supposed to be working on behalf of city taxpayers and their children. While it may have become more stable in the days since Fenerty was allowed free reign, it still needs to be blown up and made accountable. (While the board deserves excoriation, it's clear Fenerty had protectors in Harrisburg.)
First up: The entire board should resign. Hiring practices should be professionalized so that neither party can continue to use it as a patronage pit.
The current list of outrages clearly argues for local control, but so does the fact that the PPA's main job is to control traffic and related revenues for this city. State control never made sense. Today, it's a criminal embarrassment.