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Philly’s parking agency still overpays executives and has too many political patronage jobs, audit finds

The PPA has been criticized for years for its patronage jobs as well as inefficiencies and high salaries that limit its payments to the city and school district.

Parking tickets on cars parked along Walnut Street in Philadelphia in March.
Parking tickets on cars parked along Walnut Street in Philadelphia in March.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia Parking Authority has higher executive salaries and staffing levels compared with parking agencies in other cities, and continues to have issues with political patronage and other inefficiencies, according to an audit released Wednesday by the city controller.

Despite some changes after the state auditor general released two reports and recommendations in 2017, Controller Rebecca Rhynhart said, persistent problems at the PPA ultimately take money from the city’s schools. The School District of Philadelphia receives payments from the agency after it covers its own expenses and pays a required amount to the city.

“While there’s been some improvements made since 2017, the larger problems remain: The inflated workforce, the salaries are too high, the patronage within the organization, and the lack of transparent and open process,” Rhynhart said in an interview.

The audit comes as the PPA, like other government agencies, faces revenue losses due to the coronavirus pandemic. The agency does not expect to give any money to the School District in the current fiscal year, spokesperson Marty O’Rourke said, because no revenue will be left over after covering expenses and making its required payment to the city. O’Rourke said the PPA projects paying only $5 million to the district in the next fiscal year, which ends in March 2022.

Rob Dubow, the city’s finance director, told City Council last week that the PPA projects giving no money to the School District in the current fiscal year.

The PPA, controlled by a state-appointed board, is a rare example of Republican control in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. It oversees on-street metered and residential permit parking, and maintains parking garages and lots around the city, bringing in about $264 million in annual revenue.

The 2017 audits focused largely on former executive director Vincent J. Fenerty, who resigned in 2016 after two sexual-harassment scandals. But the issues outlined in Rhynhart’s report are not new: The agency has been criticized for years for its patronage jobs as well as inefficiencies and high salaries that limit its payments to the city and School District. There has been little structural change in that time.

» READ MORE: From 2007: The PPA has become a self-replicating patronage machine

The PPA pushed back on nearly all of Rhynhart’s findings in a written response included in her report, noting that its payments to the School District from the on-street parking program have increased in recent years. PPA officials also said no other parking agency in the country should be compared with Philadelphia’s, because they have different responsibilities and structures. Joe Ashdale, chairman of the PPA’s board, said the agency has already implemented all of Rhynhart’s recommendations and said her comparison with other cities is “significantly flawed.”

“It’s a classic comparing apples to oranges,” said Scott Petri, executive director of the PPA. “And I think actually the report does a disservice to the hardworking employees of the Philadelphia Parking Authority.”

The controller’s recommendations include stopping automatic salary increases and cost-of-living adjustments for management-level employees, creating a leaner workforce through attrition; publicly advertising all open jobs and filling them based on applicants’ qualifications to avoid patronage; and increasing transparency of the agency’s budget and expenses.

Rhynhart vowed to continue pushing for change and accountability at the PPA because its revenue impacts the School District. The PPA paid $10 million to the district in fiscal year 2017, $13 million in fiscal year 2018, and nearly $16 million in fiscal year 2019. But more improvements could be made to increase that amount, Rhynhart said.

“Every dollar that they spend unnecessarily is a dollar that could have gone to our schools that isn’t there,” she said.

The PPA said it already publicly posts jobs, makes its budget and expenses public, and has reduced its workforce through attrition for the last five years. And an outside consultant hired after the 2017 auditor general’s report made recommendations on salaries that resulted in some adjustments, Petri said. Cost-of-living increases are needed to keep pace with other government agencies, he said.

City Councilmember Helen Gym, an advocate for increasing school funding, said the audit is especially important given that the PPA will not be making payments to the School District this fiscal year.

“This audit proves that PPA does have money for schools — money it instead chooses to spend on inflated executive salaries, internal spending, and an ever-expanding workforce,” she said. “That would not be the case if there was any functional oversight of this agency and if the PPA followed the best practices of other major cities’ parking agencies.”

» READ MORE: From 2017: Hands-off PPA board allowed director to reign as 'tyrant'

The controller’s audit compared PPA expenses, staffing levels, and revenue for its on-street parking program with those in other cities. Rhynhart said those comparisons showed that Philadelphia’s staffing levels are inflated and do not necessarily result in more revenue. Portland, Ore., for example, has about one-sixth the staffing of Philadelphia and 1,000 fewer parking spaces, but raises only $1 million less in annual revenue than the PPA.

Rhynhart also examined patronage jobs — for which the PPA has long been criticized — by taking a random sample of 107 employees in the on-street parking and support units. Of those employees, 23% either held political positions or lived with someone who did, such as party ward leaders or committee persons. Rhynhart said her review did not include more distant connections, such as friends or extended family members.

“It’s still being run on the concept of who you know rather than being run for the people,” she said.

Petri said the sampling most employees do not have political connections, and noted that many have worked for the PPA for a long time and could not be fired simply because they or a family member hold a political position.

Other findings in the audit report include:

  1. Although the PPA publicly advertised for the executive director position in 2017, Rhynhart said Petri, a former Republican state representative, did not have the qualifications listed in the job description. The PPA also did not publicly post the position of chief financial officer.

  2. The PPA does not take advantage of up-to-date technology, such as patrol vehicles equipped with license-plate recognition, to enforce overdue parking meters. And it uses multiple types of meters, which can result in more expensive upkeep. (Petri said the PPA does use some license-plate recognition but must still have officers patrol Center City on foot to avoid adding to traffic congestion.)

  3. As executive director, Petri has a salary of $210,000 — $16,000 more than Portland’s transportation director and $91,000 more than Boston’s commissioner of transportation and parking. The PPA’s response noted that Rhynhart did not take into account the size or structure of other agencies when making those comparisons, and said the executive director salary is less than it was five years ago, before Petri held the job.

Rhynhart said the PPA could reconsider its staffing and salaries and look to technology for other efficiencies. Ultimately, she said, it should be under city control. The 2017 auditor general’s reports also made that suggestion — but Rhynhart acknowledged it is unlikely to change.

“In the short term what I’m asking and urging the PPA board to do,” she said, “is to make the changes necessary to run the parking authority in a more efficient and effective manner so that there’s more money available for our schools.”