In September 2009, during the twilight of her second and final term, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin signed a seven-year contract with Milwaukee firm Duncan Solutions to enforce the city’s parking laws. The privatized program, dubbed PARKatlanta, seemed like a good way to give a nearly broke city that had scrapped its own ticketing force a guaranteed infusion of $5.5 million a year. In exchange, the company would write tickets and boot cars, keeping any leftover cash, which provided incentive to cite motorists early and often.
Then PARKatlanta officers performed remarkably well at their jobs. Too good. In fact, the company handed out a whopping 203,000 citations last year. Almost inevitably, it became Atlanta’s most-hated agency, infuriating residents accustomed to years of lax enforcement and free street parking.
The company’s meter maids, clad in their crisp blue shirts, soon faced an onslaught of middle fingers and expletives. “Nobody likes PARKatlanta” bumper stickers popped up. A “Fire PARKatlanta” Facebook group was created. Residents lobbed a litany of insults at the operation: Money-grubbing parasites. Satan’s valet service. The worst thing to happen to Atlanta since Sherman.
Hyperbole aside, the discord grew voluminous enough that Franklin’s successor, Kasim Reed, had to rewrite the contract to ensure greater accountability and transparency from the ticketing force—a renegotiation that cost the city somewhere in the neighborhood of $800,000. When Reed ran for re-election in 2013, he minced no words that PARKatlanta’s contract would likely be its last with the city. “That will probably be my last gift to the people of Atlanta [before leaving office],” he said.
With PARKatlanta’s contract nearly up, Atlanta councilmembers last night held a meeting at City Hall that gave hundreds of residents the chance to air their grievances with the company and suggest how things should be improved (several dozen showed up in person and hundreds submitted written feedback in advance of the meeting). Mike Boyle, founder of BootPARKatlanta.com, said the city’s next parking operator shouldn’t have a business model tying profit to the number of written tickets (60 percent of PARKatlanta’s revenue came from citations, he said). Councilman Kwanza Hall, who represents parts of Downtown and other eastside neighborhoods where most of the city’s 2,500 meters are located, had smaller gripes, such as the way some meters still don’t take credit cards—a source of frustration that recently earned him a parking ticket.
Not all, though, are opposed to PARKatlanta’s current operation. According to Councilwoman Mary Norwood, 12 of the approximately 250 responses she received from residents actually had positive things to say about PARKatlanta. Midtown resident John Goodwin, who lives a block from Piedmont Park, said he supported renewing PARKatlanta’s contract given their effectiveness in clamping down on illegal parking on residential streets near his house.
Atlanta has a range of choices: re-bid the contract as written; rewrite the contract; divide up the contract (i.e. one company handles citations, another oversees meters); or, most radically, de-privatize parking enforcement, giving the job back to city employees. However it’s handled, Councilman Michael Julian Bond said the decision process affords the city an “opportunity for us to do it better.”
But no one seems to know exactly what “better” looks like. Even if the much-maligned PARKatlanta goes away, a different company could end up doing the same job. Reed, who wasn’t at the meeting, said recently he liked the idea of the police taking over the program—but he also wanted to ensure that ticketing revenue remains at current levels. Last night’s meeting left a number of unanswered questions: Why do complaints about tickets go unanswered? How come parking meters are difficult to use? Why can I only park in a space for two hours? How is it that officers can illegally park in the process of ticketing me for illegally parking? Those specifics will continue to be hashed out in a series of upcoming meetings.
Guess who’d like to win that contract? Yep, Duncan Solutions, the company behind PARKatlanta. After the meeting, Anderson Moore, vice president of operations, acknowledged the past issues they’ve had with some customers: “We’ve heard the people and tried to make earnest steps to resolve the issues.” He also believes, however, that the vitriol directed toward PARKatlanta is largely unwarranted. In 2008, the last year the city handled parking enforcement, officers issued 183,000 citations—2014 saw that number increase by only 11 percent, even though there are 2,500 meters today compared to 850 in 2008.
“It’s perception, but perception is reality,” Moore said. “We want to be here. This is home for us. We take pride in what we do. We’d be a viable solution [for the next contract].”
Are you sad you missed out on the fun? The next two PARKatlanta meetings will be held December 10 at 6:30 p.m. at Inman Middle School and January 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the Martin Luther King Sr. Community Resources Complex.