“There's no agency that people have loved to hate more than the Parking Authority.”
Committee of 70 President David Thornburgh is probably understating things. Mention the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) around most city residents, and you’ll get curses in response.
Of course, ticketing and towing cars won't win you any popularity contests. But the widespread perception that all those fines and fees pad the salaries of political insiders makes things worse.
“I think the people of Philadelphia have kind of had it with the old school norms of political patronage and to the victor go the spoils,” said Thornburgh. “Certainly, the Parking Authority has been a target rich environment when it comes to needless patronage, too much spending, and the antics of their leadership team.”
But all that might be changing. At least, for now.
Clarena Tolson took over as the PPA’s interim executive director last October, after Vince Fenerty resigned following public allegations of sexual harassment. Since then, Tolson has instituted a series of reforms aimed at cutting costs and increasing efficiency, and they’ve already begun to pay off.
Comparing the first half of PPA fiscal year 2016 under Fenerty to the first half of this fiscal year under Tolson, PPA net revenues are up $3.8 million, total payroll costs are down $1.7 million, operational support (administrative) expenses are down $1.9 million, and total operating expenses are down $832,000. Along with some other, less dramatic changes, net operating gain — the government entity equivalent of profits — increased $8.4 million, a 20 percent increase overall.
Those numbers aren’t just good for the agency: The PPA’s excess revenues get divided between the city and the school district. A more efficient parking authority means more money for school books and road repaving.
Tolson wants to stay on as the PPA’s executive director, but despite the incredible numbers, she still has “interim” in her title, even though the PPA board’s search for an executive director was supposed to wrap up last month.
When asked about the strong financial performance, PPA board member and Philadelphia City Council member Al Taubenberger pointedly omitted Tolson from his praise. “It's a talented group of employees that's working hard. It's a smart management team that's been there for a while, and a very good board of directors,” Taubenberger said.
When asked if he was purposefully avoiding giving Tolson credit for the good numbers, Taubenberger again evaded. “It's because you have a talented group and a motivated staff and a good chairman,” he said. “And that's all I got to say.”
The PPA has been a Republican-run patronage mill since the state took it over in 2001 and stuffed the board with local GOP leaders. Since then, the number of employees there have steadily grown, and eventually doubled, to over 1,000.
But that job-growth trend has reversed under Tolson, who has mandated operational reviews of every vacant position before it’s filled again. That process has led to the elimination of 74 positions deemed unnecessary or redundant, once again bringing the employee total under a thousand.
Those reviews are part of an ongoing revaluation of every position at the PPA, said Tolson in an interview with PlanPhilly.
Tolson has also eliminated compensation time for PPA executives and limited comp time and the number of vacation days employees can accrue. Fenerty caused a second scandal after resigning when he cashed in hundreds of unused vacation and compensation days to get a $225,000 payout on top of his six-figure pension. Employees can now only carry over up to 70 vacation days, down from 150.
Senior executives at the authority signed off willingly on the change, said long-time deputy executive director Rick Dickson. “I turned in over 200 [comp days] with no compensation because I felt it was the right thing to do.”
“I think [people like Dickson] deserve credit. It was on the books and they could have, by right, said ‘I’m going to keep it.’” said Tolson. “All they got was a thank you for that.”
Tolson emphasized it was the entire authority team that was making the reforms possible, flatly refusing to take sole credit for the improved financial performance. “This is through the hard work and diligence of the employees of Parking Authority who are committed to integrity, transparency and hard work,” she said.
Additionally, new protocols at the PPA require a supervisor’s written justification when an employee’s overtime or comp time exceeds 10 percent during a single pay period.
The PPA has also adopted a policy prohibiting nepotism, Tolson said. Tolson herself was accused of nepotism when it was reported that the authority had hired her daughter’s roommate.
Perhaps most significantly, the PPA has adopted written procedures for hiring and promotions. Job candidates now take written tests and have their applications reviewed by formalized panels. Hiring and promotion decisions now have to be documented in a way they weren’t before, Tolson said. And for the first time ever, said Tolson, job openings and applications are posted on the PPA’s website.
“There is a level of transparency with that: There’s no need to go to somebody who knows somebody,” said Tolson. “Here you just go in, off the website, and anybody can apply. And based upon your own merit, your own skills, and your ability, you'll be selected to be hired to work here at the Parking Authority.”
It’s about time, said the Committee of 70’s Thornburgh. “There's no reason on God's Earth why public agencies should be obscure or keep people in the dark about basic things like job openings and contract possibilities,” he said. “I mean, that's the kind of transparency people expect these days.”
“To remind you how out of whack some of this stuff was,” Thornburgh added, “the ability of employees to carry over 150 vacation days — there’s no organization I’ve ever heard of that had that kind of policy.”
While the new employment policies may seem mundane to most, they’ve been a sea change at the PPA, leading to ripples of discontent.
“The overall impression I get [is] people generally have not been satisfied with her performance,” said Michael Cibik, vice chairman of the Philadelphia Republican Party. “Employees haven’t been satisfied with her leadership.”
Local GOP chairman Michael Meehan didn’t pussyfoot around why some in his party were unhappy. “We're trying to provide job opportunities and there are very few avenues to do that,” he said. “The Parking Authority for a number of years has been that for Republicans.”
Meehan said he was personally happy to hear that Tolson was cutting waste at the PPA, in part because he hasn’t used it for patronage. “I'm involved in trying to get people jobs. [But] I have very few — if any — people that I've placed over there [at the PPA],” said Meehan. “So, there are probably some people that are going to feel very upset about it, but I'm not sure I'm one of them.”
Tolson’s trimming of administrative fat has placed some local Republicans in a philosophical quandary. On one hand, they are the party of small government that rails against bureaucratic waste. On the other hand, patronage jobs provide political power.
“Maybe there’s a duality here,” said Matthew Wolfe, Republican leader of the 27th Ward. “While I have no problem using something like the Parking Authority for patronage, by the same token what I really want to see is efficient government.”
It doesn’t help that Tolson is a lifelong Democrat who has worked for Democratic mayors going back to Ed Rendell.
In her interview, Tolson pointed to other reforms instituted during her tenure: awarding all professional services contract through a public Request for Proposals process (also available online), publishing more performance and financial data online, and going neighborhood-to-neighborhood with a series of outreach events aimed at helping residents navigate the authority’s bureaucracy.
Thornburgh, the Committee of 70 president, said he was heartened by the changes at the PPA. “I suspect there’s a lot more ground to travel to bring it into the 21st Century,” he said. “But, so far, this looks encouraging.”
Tolson knows she has her detractors, both within and without the authority. But, Tolson said she won’t back down.
“I let my work speak for me. I don’t tend to fight with those who say otherwise. I just have the proof in the pudding,” said Tolson. “The facts are without increases in the rate, without rate changes, without providing massive bloat, or having draconian cuts in an unrealistic manner, we've been able to manage quite nicely, to the extent that people become more understanding of where we're going as an organization. We're not there yet, in terms of having achieved all that we want to achieve, but we're moving in the right direction and we're moving that way aggressively.”