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PARKING WARS
TAXPAYERS NEED ASSURANCE THAT WINNING BID TO RUN RAMPS, LOTS IS THE BEST DEAL FOR CITY

Buffalo may not have to deal with the scarcity of parking that New York City faces, but there's still a battle being fought for spaces. The powerful interests waging this battle are locked in a struggle over thousands of downtown parking spaces.

We don't claim to know which side has the better argument. What we do know is that when it comes to managing roughly 7,000 downtown parking spaces, it simply makes good business sense to seek multiple bids, as the city has done, and take the one that works best for taxpayers.

That said, citizens need some assurance that this process is open and transparent. The city did the right thing by putting public parking out to bid. But it needs to do more. City taxpayers need assurances that a disinterested party will examine the bids to get the best deal for the city, and that the proposal is not skewed to favor one interest over another.

It's hard to feel confident that the parking board is up to the task. The board is being led by a 93-year-old chairman who was recently hospitalized with pneumonia. The only employee is on long-term sick leave and three of the 11 board seats remain vacant.

City Comptroller Andrew SanFilippo ought to step into this dispute with an offer to closely examine the bids to make sure they are the result of a fair process and to evaluate what's best for the city.

The group that now controls city parking -- Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, known as BCAR -- claims the cost of parking would significantly increase should it lose its franchise. Other downtown interests, however, point out that the city would gain new revenue should it sell its ramps.

Marine Buffalo Associates, which owns HSBC Center, and the Main Place Liberty Group want to buy the ramps under their buildings. Patrick Hotung, the general manager of Main Place Liberty Group and a BCAR board member, said the city would benefit two ways if it sold him the ramp below his building: It would get $10.5 million from the sale as well as $5 million over the next 15 years by putting the ramp on the tax rolls. In addition, Hotung said, he would be in a far better position to help fill his building with tenants. It's now less than half full.

Ellicott Development's Carl Paladino, a BCAR member who owns a half-dozen downtown parking lots, points out that taxpayers don't have to pay for new ramps, which are funded from parking revenues. He complained to Mayor Anthony Masiello when the Buffalo Board of Parking put out bids to run the city's lots and ramps. Masiello then yanked the proposal, modified it and sent out the new version for bids.

Paladino believes it would be a bad deal for the city to sell any parking spaces. Because BCAR is a nonprofit entity, there is no sales tax. Otherwise, parking rates would be 8.25 percent higher, Paladino said. BCAR takes in $7.6 million a year in parking fees, but that money is used to pay off bonds, run the ramps and fill a $5 million parking reserve for unanticipated expenses.

With Buffalo scratching for every nickel, and a control board looking over its shoulder, the city needs to make sure that it's getting the best possible deal.

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