Last week a South Side, faith-based business group expressed frustration with the city’s privatized parking by initiating a boycott, a move lauded by Austin church leaders.
For more than 10 years the United American Progress Association, which works to stimulate economic growth within black communities, had rented space inside the Israel Methodist Community Church on the 7600 block of S. Cottage Grove. The group recently decided to meet at 1716 W. 79th St-the catalyst for the move has the association’s founding member Rev. Webb Evans fuming.
Longer hours and increased costs to park on the street in front of and near the church resulted in many of its members receiving tickets. The group subsequently moved to avoid the fines and the high cost of the pay boxes-$50 fines; and, around $1 per hour from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven day a week.
During a recent Monday night meeting at their new rendezvous spot, they plotted a counterstrike, deciding to boycott. Evans penned a mission statement, published last week in the Austin Weekly News, and asked worshippers and church leaders throughout the city to avoid parking in spots with pay boxes when attending services or church activities.
“The church should [always] be open [to the people],” said Evans, during a recent phone interview. “I don’t think you should have meters in front of churches at all.”
Evans claimed it cost at least $10 per day to park near Israel Methodist. West Side pastor Marshall Hatch supports the effort.
“This nickel and diming is so much out of control that one can never know what will be up the local government’s sleeve next,” he said, calling the parking situation egregious.
Evans hopes to affect the bottom line of Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, the benefactor of the city’s parking revenue for the next 74 years. Perhaps then, Evans said, the company will remove the boxes located in front of churches and place them elsewhere. He’s calling on all religious organizations to participate.
“It’s a good principle,” said Rev. Leronzo Moore, pastor of New Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park, 4224 W. Madison St., of Evans’ stance.
“The liquor store ain’t got no meter in front of it,” he had told his parishioners, reminding them of the pay box on the church’s block, and the free parking on the other side of Madison in front of a liquor store. “Ain’t that a shame?”
Jean Jackson, executive director of nonprofit Eyes on Austin, 5519 W. North Ave., also feels that religious entities should be exempt but also believes social service groups like hers should be awarded the same privilege.
“They have parishioners that come all day long…they park on the curb because they don’t want to pay to go to church. Why should they?” she told Austin Weekly News. “For agencies like ours, we have a hard enough time keeping up with our expenses as it is, without having to walk around with a handful of quarters to pay meters.”
Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, 4301 W. Washington, disagrees.
“We’re not exactly the same as just another nonprofit organization. I mean, I have people that need to fill out all of my different taxes,” he said in an interview with Austin Weekly News.
Jackson, though, responded: “You’re comparing apples and oranges. We’re providing a service, as well.”
Nonprofits vs. churches
Most religious institutions are actually on par with secular nonprofit organizations, because they essentially are nonprofits. Both, for example, typically share the same tax exemption status with the IRS- the 501(c)(3), which means they are excused from paying certain federal income taxes.
When asked about concessions for secular, nonprofit community organizations, Evans said they should move if parking costs are an issue.
“Most of the organizations don’t own buildings, most of them [are] renting. Churches can’t move because they own. Nonprofits can move where there are no meters,” Evans said.
He also suggested not issuing licenses to any community not-for-profit organization that plans to operate in offices with pay boxes on the block.
In December 2008, the Chicago City Council voted to approve a $1.2 billion, 75-year lease of its parking meters to Chicago Parking Meters, LLC. But the program soon faced public frustration due to the increased hours of operation, huge jumps in cost, and a surge in parking tickets issued. Costs are now as high as $4.25 per hour in the Loop and around $1 per hour in most of Austin.
In June 2009, the Office of the Inspector General of the City of Chicago published a scathing report of the Daley administration’s mishandling of parking privatization. According to the report, which challenges the financial analysis performed by contracted advisors from William Blair & Company, the administration low-balled the 75-year value of its then-roughly 36,000 parking meters by 46 percent. In other words, if the city properly assessed the value of the meters and leased its paid parking under the same terms, the meters could have sold for around $2.13 billion.
At that time, though, the city was working towards mending a budget deficit that had been reduced to a $150 million shortfall from nearly $500 million for fiscal year 2009.
Chicago Parking Meters won a bid to lease the meters and city council members were presented a “power point” and a “flow chart” to demonstrate that the $1.2 billion upfront payment was the best market deal; the implication was to strike the hammer while the iron was hot. Moreover, former Chief Financial Officer Paul Volpe also reminded Council members that the fiscal year 2009 budget relied on their approving the deal.
“All of them saying they voted for it because the city’s broke, at the same time when the city was going broke; they got raises [and] they didn’t seem concerned,” Evans said, noting that 6 percent raise aldermen voted for themselves in 2009. “I asked one of them: ‘What are the benefits to the aldermen?’ He said, ‘No benefits.’ They just want to please the mayor.”
Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Baptist Church in Austin, 1256 N. Waller, deplored what he called the “rubberstamp City Council’s” actions with regards to approving the lease. Acree also countered the claim that council members were not provided adequate time to investigate the deal saying, “If they can’t do the proper research then they’re in the wrong field.”
Where does the money go?
All of the revenue garnered from the pay boxes now goes to Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, which, Hatch insists, makes matters worse, arguing that the only money the city receives is in the form of fines.
Although she was not a council member when the lease passed, Ald. Deborah Graham (29th), appointed in March by Mayor Daley, said she would be interested in “concessions on Sundays.” Graham admitted not being familiar with the terms of the lease, and said she would look into it-she, for instance, was unaware that the city was not receiving revenue from the pay boxes themselves.
The offices of Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) and Ald. Ed Smith (28th) did not immediately return e-mails or calls. Both Smith and Mitts voted in favor of the lease.
As for Austin, there are not that many pay boxes in front of religious institutions. What’s more, plenty have parking lots and those that do have boxes in front, like New Macedonia, are largely comprised of parishioners that either take public transportation to services, or park elsewhere. Evans is requesting for all churchgoers to do the same.
While acknowledging that the lease was flawed, Rev. Moore of New Macedonia says no one in his congregation utilizes the pay box-his church has a parking lot.
At New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield just around the corner, Hatch and his congregation do not have to worry about paying for street parking, as they are located on a residential strip of Washington. Parishioners at Acree’s Greater St. John Baptist Bible also park in a lot.
All of the pastors who spoke with the Austin Weekly denounced the privatization of the city’s parking and commended Evans’ initiative. But none said that they would directly associate themselves with the boycott, which Evans also called “an attack on the black community.”
“You know, I used to know Dr. King,” Evans recalled. “I marched with him in Chicago and Washington. I’m just trying to use Dr. King’s method. He just tried to expose what was wrong.”