A day on the prowl with PARKatlanta 

Undercover (kind of) with Atlanta's most hated agency

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"That cop seemed pissed," I say.

"Was he?" she asks. "I didn't really notice."

A couple blocks away, we encounter a more conspicuous kind of rude: the hilarious kind. In front of a Georgia State University office building on Peachtree Street, a car with a handicapped placard — another demographic that Thomas hints tends to think itself exempt from paying for parking — is sitting at an expired meter. As she begins to enter the vehicle's plate number into her handheld, a not-at-all-handicapped man in a white tank top and baggy jean shorts emerges from the building shouting, "Yo, that's my car!" Before Thomas can launch into an explanation about his offense or offer him a chance to feed the meter, a gappy smile spreads across the man's face. "Aw, I was just playing," he says. It's a popular ruse, and one that's apparently funny enough that three strangers walking past burst into cacophonous laughter. One of them, a pudgy guy in business casual, literally slaps his knee before offering the man a high five.

Criticism of the job PARKatlanta and its foot soldiers are doing has hardly been limited to on-street interactions. Fed-up members of the public have taken to the Internet with their distaste for Atlanta's new parking overlords. A Facebook fan page entitled "Fire PARKatlanta" is one of the more popular forums for people to post camera phone videos of enforcement agents on the prowl, photos of PARKatlanta vehicles parked illegally and helpful suggestions like this, posted in early April: "If you work for Park Atlanta you should reevaluate yourself as a human being."

One of the page's co-administrators — who asked to remain anonymous — says he hasn't kept up with parking issues as much lately, but still hopes to "get people motivated to get rid of PARKatlanta." He worries that confusing signage and difficult-to-operate multispace meters hurt tourism, especially in heavily enforced areas like Midtown. He's heard from plenty of people who've emerged from interactions with rude enforcement agents. But, like many others, his primary beef is with the seven-year contract to privatize parking operations that the city is stuck in.

"I just don't understand why we've basically given this company the incentive to prey upon us," he says. "If there was some kind of cap or the company didn't have incentive to ruthlessly ticket, it would be different. The principle of it is wrong."

Atlanta's contract with PARKatlanta works as follows: Each year until 2016, Duncan Solutions — a Milwaukee-based corporation that operates here as PARKatlanta — pays the city $5.5 million. Duncan installs and maintains all of the parking equipment and signage, and manages enforcement personnel; in exchange, it keeps all of the revenue from the meters and from the citations it writes. If the city decides not to renew the contract when it expires, Atlanta gets to keep all of the equipment that's been installed.

But the writing's on the wall: PARKatlanta has to do its fighting best to recoup the $5.5 million it pays the city each year. In the months after the contract was signed, PARKatlanta increased the number of metered spaces citywide from 833 to 2,577. (At present, says Public Works, PARKatlanta "is not in receipt of any work orders for expansion of the meter inventory.") In 2010, the outfit brought in $2,970,000 from meters and another $2,978,000 from citations — and, based on totals through the beginning of May, it's on track to make more like $4.5 million this year from citations alone (and about that same amount from meters).

Lots of major cities — usually those in need of quick cash to close budget holes — have inked similar privatization deals in recent years. In 2008, Chicago hastily approved an insane 75-year, $1.2 billion lease of its parking meters to a private holding company. Where Atlanta saw an increase in the number of meters and meter readers on the streets, Chicago saw hourly parking rates quadruple practically overnight. Mike Brockway, administrator of the Chicago parking blog the Expired Meter, describes the public's reaction following the rate hike as "visceral." The sentiment there seems to echo that in Atlanta. "It's like the mayor went down to the pawn shop with a family heirloom and hocked it," says Brockway. "He looked at the short term and screwed us in the long term."

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