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Change is afoot for city garages

Will politics play role in the selection of next SmartPark manager?

City officials began interviews this week to pick a manager to run its six SmartPark garages downtown for the next five years Ñ a process freighted with heavy political overtones.

The Portland Business Alliance is the powerful business group that has overseen the city's garages since 1982, when it was known as the Association for Portland Progress. But lately the group has drawn the ire of city officials because of verbal swipes its chief executive officer has taken at Portland's policies toward business.

Franklin 'Kim' Kimbrough, the CEO, has charged that the city has an antibusiness stance that discourages development.

The PBA, which is competing with Star Park for the five-year deal, derives substantial income from the parking contract, which expires June 30.

If the city wants to make a change now, it doesn't lack ammunition.

For one thing, SmartPark is not performing as smartly as it once did. It ran a $1.5 million deficit last year, versus a $200,000 deficit in 2001.

SmartPark's revenues were down about 12 percent because of the recession-induced decline in the number of downtown shoppers and employees, said Ron Bergman, director of the city's Bureau of General Services.

Greg Goodman, whose City Center Parking oversees the garages' pay booths for PBA and the city, said the decline was even steeper Ñ about 37 percent Ñ if you count just daylong parkers.

SmartPark also has come off as a somewhat less than stellar performer in several audits, the most recent by Burbank, Calif.-based Walker Parking Consultants. Covering December 2002, the audit was made public at the end of March.

The consultant found software glitches, mismatched receipts and late-deposit problems with SmartPark's garage at Southwest Third Avenue and Alder Street and suggested that this facility alone could bring in another $80,000 a year through a more sophisticated system of calculating charges.

A November report by Portland-based Barney & Worth estimated that tighter parking management could yield the city an additional $1.6 million in revenues. The study found that the city's costs for operating the garages Ñ about $1,200 per parking space Ñ were 50 percent higher than that of garages in like-sized cities.

Little competition

The PBA and Star Park were the only organizations that responded by the April 17 deadline for proposals, said Willette Rasmussen, a procurement specialist with the city's Bureau of Purchases.

A seven-member citizens committee, picked by the City Council, is conducting the interviews and will pass on its recommendation in mid-May. The council can accept the committee's recommendation or make its own decision.

The city needs the parking revenues to pay off its Portland Streetcar debt and boost the Portland Department of Transportation budget.

One of the obvious solutions to the parking deficit problem is a rate increase, which Bergman said is one option.

'We have not decided what we are going to do,' Bergman said. 'We're spending more money than we take in. There are fewer people coming downtown. Our fund balances are down because of interest rates. Our effort is to do everything we can before we raise rates.'

SmartPark's rates, now at 95 cents an hour for the first four hours and $2 an hour for the next four hours, cap at $12 a day Ñ a daylong price at least $5 more than competing parking garages.

A lot at stake

City managers said it's unlikely that negative sentiment about the PBA will influence the decision on the parking contract.

'The criteria for making the decision is spelled out in the request for proposals,' said Bergman, who characterized the Walker audit as 'finding minor things that can be improved on; we didn't find anything horrendous there.'

Goodman, a member of the PBA's board, reports to both the PBA and the city, although his SmartPark contract is with the city. The PBA oversees janitorial, security and validation services at the garages.

To avoid a conflict of interest, Goodman said, he recuses himself from PBA's garage oversight discussions. But he does not hesitate to express himself to city officials

In an e-mail to Bergman, Goodman pointed out inaccuracies in the Walker audit and said the problems at SmartPark have been corrected. He ended with a plea: 'Ron, I hope you can understand where these inaccuracies could be damaging to City Center Parking's reputation.'

'It's easy to focus on the negative,' he said this week.

The PBA charges the city $3 million a year to run the garages, and it pays City Center Parking $1.2 million of that total, Bergman said. The alliance uses another $690,000 to market the garages.

Rasmussen said the marketing component will be removed from the new parking contract, and the City Council will decide on future marketing plans.

If Star Park is selected, it's almost certain that rival City Center won't continue as SmartPark manager.

Star Park president Barry Schlesinger said the company is bidding below cost for the $3 million contract. The 6-year-old company, which submitted its proposal in partnership with the Alliance of Minority Chambers, didn't exist when the PBA signed its last contract with the city.

'Yeah, we are going to charge less,' Schlesinger said. 'Obviously we are bidding because we can provide better services at less cost.'

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