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Parking fee furor rouses City Hall ; With hockey fans hit by 'exorbitant' rates, state probe is sought

The city parking commissioner lashed out Wednesday at operators of privately owned parking lots near HSBC Arena for charging "exorbitant" rates, while Mayor Byron W. Brown asked the state attorney general to investigate alleged "price gouging."

City officials also ended up having to explain themselves after The Buffalo News discovered that a leased, city-owned parking lot in front of the arena was charging $15 per game Tuesday, with a reduced rate of $40 for all three games.

That was despite a $15 cap for event parking at municipally owned lots.

Higher-than-usual parking rates began surfacing Tuesday as ticket-holders -- most of them from Canada -- descended downtown for the World Junior Hockey Championship only to find parking lots charging up to $60 for the day.

"The mayor is upset, and when [the rates at privately operated lots] were brought to our attention yesterday, we set about looking at what options we had available to us," said Peter K. Cutler, the mayor's spokesman. "It's clear the best one is to go to the Attorney General's Office to ask through their Consumer Affairs Bureau to look into this."

The mayor has written a letter to the Attorney General's Office requesting such an investigation, Cutler said.

"The reason we think it is inappropriate," Parking Commissioner Kevin J. Helfer said, "is because it is just an exorbitant amount to charge for parking when you are trying to bring people to downtown Buffalo [and] tourists to Buffalo. It just doesn't sit well with us, and obviously it will leave a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths."

But private lots weren't the only problem.

Earlier Wednesday, Helfer extolled the low prices for events at municipally owned lots, boasting that "the best parking is at the Webster Block, where the city can only charge up to $15."

Later, he acknowledged that Allpro Parking, which operates the lot, also was charging a higher rate for the hockey tournament, which he said he strongly disapproved of and was seeking to overturn.

Richard A. Serra, president of Allpro Parking, said he considered that multiple games at the arena constitute separate events. He also said extra staffing was needed.

"We felt we had additional expenses, and we had the right to charge accordingly," Serra said.

Helfer said he told Serra that he didn't agree with his interpretation, and he has asked the city's Law Department to render a judgment on whether the higher rate is in violation of the company's licensing agreement.

"I'm sure [the Law Department] will come back and say you can only charge $15 a day for an event, and that an event is inclusive of an entire day," Helfer said.

But, Helfer said, "We're in uncharted territory -- this type of thing where you have three games in one day doesn't come up every day."

Helfer said he plans to review the licensing of all downtown lots for possible rate violations, and will consider proposing new ordinances to prevent changing prices on the same day. Some lots have done so based on which teams are playing.

Two parking lot operators -- Mark D. Croce's Skydeck Corp., which runs Pay2Park, and James T. Sandoro's Buffalo Motor Cars -- have drawn criticism for charging among the highest rates.

But it doesn't appear they have done anything illegal. Sandoro's license with the city lets him charge up to $100 a day, while Croce can ask for up to $75 per day. Croce also leases a parking lot from The Buffalo News, where the most he is allowed to charge is $25.

Croce's sprawling lot bordering Scott, Perry and Michigan streets was charging $40 for one game and $60 for all three games Tuesday, and $20 for one game and $40 for the two games played Wednesday. The next tripleheader in HSBC Arena is Friday.

Croce said his management team was simply taking advantage of the "free-market system."

"If you charge a price and fill up the lot, then it wasn't too much because the market has a way of defining its own level. People make their own decisions of what the threshold is," Croce said.

"Some people will say [price] doesn't matter, because they want to park their car outside the front door. Others will want to park in the the Theater District, and jump on the free train. It's a free market."

Buffalo, he said, was being too small-minded.

"Buffalo has to start thinking like a big city. This is a big event -- it's supposed to generate economic development," Croce said.

Charging more for the hockey tournament, which runs through next Wednesday, was a way to recover losses from slow nights, he said. Croce said that it cost him "thousands of dollars" to bring in a contracting crew on Christmas Eve to remove snow using heavy equipment so the lot could be open for the games.

Instead of the city directing its criticism at legitimate operators, he suggested, it should be going after unlicensed and unregulated lots he claimed were operating downtown.

Sandoro, who normally charges $3 at his Swan Street parking lot, charged $30 on Tuesday both there and at his Scott Street lot, which isn't normally open in the daytime. The price dropped to $20 on Wednesday.

The hockey event is an ideal time to charge more, Sandoro said. "What good is building arenas and ballparks if you don't bring commerce to the city?" he said. "What do we have tourism for? These people are spending their leisure dollars."

"When an event comes along where we can help pay the bills, as opposed to breaking even, that's what a prudent businessperson does."

Sandoro also said that, unlike Buffalonians, Canadians are used to paying more for parking. "They're used to paying those fees in Hamilton and Toronto and don't even blink an eye," he said. "Some do want to pay, and are tickled to have a spot close to the Thruway, and not have to spend two hours to get on it."

But Cutler, the mayor's spokesman, said that what's going on is unacceptable from the city's point of view.

"We have to look at current ordinances to see what is in play and what's not in play," he said. "Changing rates on the fly -- that was never the intent of the law."


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