3 On Your Side Investigates: Out of Order, Two Years Later

CJ's story

JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) - In a special investigation, 3 On Your Side broke down just how much the Capital City had been losing on parking meters over the last decade.

We examined hundreds of those meters back in 2016 to see how many worked, after trying initially to get these numbers from the city.

Despite the fact that our in-depth investigation exposed a serious problem with revenue collections there, the city did not move forward at all with any council-approved measures to address the parking meter problems in the two years since that original story.

Now the new administration wants to improve upon that, mentioning meters as a key piece of Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba's comprehensive strategic plan for Jackson.

"The best thing you can do for this program right now is to scrap it and start from scratch," said former parking meter maintenance supervisor Johnny Stiff. "And hope you can catch up, because fixing it now is a lost cause."

Hard to believe Stiff told 3 On Your Side this two years ago.

Since that time, the same parking meters he repaired -- usually from parts of other meters -- are still there, still malfunctioning, and still costing the city money.

"We take the highest grossing streets that we have downtown, and we commit to invest in that," said Jackson Ward 4 Councilman De'Keither Stamps.

Stamps doesn't shy away from discussing his ideas on tackling Jackson's parking meter problem.

"It's not functioning properly. Let's invest in it so that it will grow," Stamps said.

Stamps said a handful of proposals from companies have come before the council over the last few years to address the issue.

Our analysis found only one in the last two years, though: Hudson and Associates offered to put up the money for new meters in exchange for a sizable percentage of the profits.

This proposal came before the council in October 2016, under then-mayor Tony Yarber, who put out a request for proposals in January of that year.

Councilmembers ended up voting down the proposal in December after delaying the vote several times.

"It was going to generate about $250,000 for 1100 parking meters when we knew that Oxford was generating around $450,000 a year with only 350 parking meters," said Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote. "So we have three times as many parking meters, and what they brought to us,was a proposal that was only going to generate $250,000."

Documents from the city show the company would keep all parking meter revenues and guarantee that quarter-million dollar payment plus an increasing share of the profits, starting with 25 percent the first year.

Some on the council didn't want the meters managed by a private company, though.

3 On Your Side found the city spends very little on meter maintenance: less than $5,000 a year over the last three fiscal years.

It also employs maintenance workers to fix what meters they can, but administrators can't say conclusively how many on staff handle that task.

What does the city make from the meters it has?

Documents from the public works department reveal the city never made more than $200,000 annually over the last fourteen fiscal years.

Since our initial story aired on June 6, 2016, the city has raked in $307,032.

To determine a conservative estimate of how much the city should have made during that period, we calculated that:

  • 80 percent of the city's 1,026 meters work, which isn't far from the 78 percent we determined were functional after counting hundreds of them in 2016.
  • The meters only bring in half of the maximum they could make per day, which comes to $2.25.
  • Only 260 days per year were counted because the meters aren't enforced during weekends.

From that math, 3 On Your Side determined the city should have brought in $961,740 during a two-year period, which is three times what it actually made.

"Right now we're losing money on parking meters, which is really a crying shame," Foote said.

Jackson's council members control the city's funds.

Ultimately their votes determine whether money is spent, but they don't craft the plans or execute them.

That responsibility falls to the mayor and his office.

"It's not anything that we want to privatize. We want to be able to maintain our assets," said Jackson Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine. "Essentially we're looking to create a public-private partnership with a parking company that allows for the installation of the equipment and some type of profit-sharing agreement."

Blaine said a network of fiber optic lines already installed throughout the city will allow them to seamlessly add tech-savvy meters on top of that framework.

Those meters would also bring built-in functionality for enforcement, allowing officers to track who's parking legally -- and who isn't -- with a smartphone or tablet.

That's a far cry from the current system, where a handful of officers keep track of more than a thousand meters the old-fashioned way.

Blaine said these new meters will embrace new technologies, with parking apps for smartphones and digital payment options, like credit cards.

He hopes it will also pave the way for more economic growth.

"We've repaved nearly 75 percent of downtown," Blaine said. "The next step is to look at parking and a modern parking system. And we have nearly 500 units of residential housing coming online downtown. This is about trying to create the infrastructure for growth in our city, and these market signals become really important."

However, he said the process will take at least six months before people start to see any changes.

One challenge he says they've had is one of perception: because people may not hear about what Blaine and members of the mayor's team are doing, it's easy to assume they're not doing anything.

Blaine chalks that up to ineffective communication.

"We have criticized ourselves in our ability to do that and we're gonna be moving in new ways to more efficiently tell our story," Blaine said.

In the meantime, Foote said he'll continue to hear complaints from those who frequent downtown.

"We haven't done a lot of the things we ought to do. We need to raise the bar and then challenge the administration and other council people to meet us at the bar. Not the bar down the street. Raise the bar for better performance," Foote said.

Stamps believes combining these parking meters with emergency call boxes and WiFi hotspots could also open the projects up to additional grant funding to upgrade them, which would be cheaper on the city.

Blaine said the mayor's office will have a more definite timeline in July after meeting with these prospective companies.

Copyright 2018 MSNewsNow. All rights reserved.