The Politics Behind The BPA
In last week’s installment of our Bethlehem Parking Issues Series we discussed the public’s general frustration with parking in our city and introduced a new growing parking meter problem being developed by our less-than-beloved Bethlehem Parking Authority. While further imposing changes are on the horizon, we have a plan to ebb the daunting tide and offer the city and the BPA some feasible compromises–a quest with which we seek your help.
According to contacts at city hall, these changes have not been discussed as potential upcoming council issues–which could mean we still have time to gather facts for the fight, or council will be powerless to a push-through from higher authorities. So, before we speculate too much, get to our opinions and propose our push-back plan, let’s stop for a moment and list some basic history and legal-political ordinance facts concerning the BPA, the meters and their relationship to not just the City of Bethlehem, but also the county and the state.
Just The Facts, Please
As stated last week, parking meters were invented in 1932, hit the streets via mass production in 1935, and began being destroyed by vigilante groups IMMEDIATELY.
Meters, however, are actually a relatively new phenomenon in Bethlehem. The Bethlehem Parking Authority was created in 1970 as a joint city venture of sorts. As far as meters are concerned, that venture is described in City Article 139 (with 1989 amendment) as:
“Delegation of Powers from City to Parking Authority for Parking Operations; Ord. 3251 – Passed 2/21/89 Transferring Responsibility for Setting Parking Meter Rates and Locations from Council to Parking Authority in accordance with directions from the Mayor.”
(Link to full Article: http://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/about/ordinance/articles/ARTICLE0139.htm)
The city has a handful of such agencies, also described in the link above, such as the Housing Authority and the Tourism Authority. More on them in a moment.
After creating the agency (BPA), which is overseen by their own Board of Directors, (not the city) the specific guidelines for the meters including their locations “In those areas designated by the Mayor” (Article 533.02 INSTALLATION OF METERS; USE OF TOKENS, (a)) were laid down in 1978 and amended in 1991.
Here is a link to the entire Parking Meter City Ordinance 533
OK. So The BPA is a city agency but is run by their own board, yet they have to seek permission from the city (mayor) to install meters and set rates. Once the money starts getting collected, where does it go?
This is one of the more interesting parts of the story. The BPA, contrary to popular belief, is NOT required to share any of their income with the city. To quote our source in city hall,
“There is nothing that mandates the Parking Authority give money to the city. However, generally most authorities contribute money to the general fund. In recent years, the BPA has not contributed to the City’s General Fund. Most of the revenues from the BPA are used to pay the operating expenses and debt service payments.”
To leave fact and speculate for a moment, one might entertain notions that the recent hiring of the new BPA director (the highly ballyhooed Connecticut resident, Tom Hartley, championed by Mayor Callahan) which came wrapped in the gift of an increase in rates, fines and time-of-operation along with the proposal of the new Smart Meters are all perhaps a move engineered not by our hated BPA but rather from the mayor’s office in an effort to generate more BPA money and therefore more city money. Perhaps not. Perhaps only the BPA will continue to reap the rewards of the fines we pay, but the relationship definitely begs questions such as why is a so-called city agency operating outside the realm of the city, and not channeling funds back into the city? Wouldn’t the city want their chunk? Or are they content letting a city agency patrol their streets like private mercenaries? After all, according to:
“Ordinance 533.01 ESTABLISHMENT OF METER ZONES.
The Bethlehem Parking Authority shall recommend changes in meter rates after which the Mayor or his designated representative shall hold a public hearing. After review, the Mayor directs whether such rate changes shall be implemented or rejected.”
So, ultimately, the mayor decides the rates, but the BPA gets the money. The BPA would appear to be (as a “city” agency monitored by the state) a government authority that actually operates as a private corporation.
But even more intriguing than the BPA-City relationship is this interesting tid-bit: The BPA is actually regulated by THE STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA as specified in 53 Pa.C.S. § 5501 et seq. Or, said somewhat speculatively, ultimately our parking rights are being handed down from the state and is therefore not even a local fight.
You can google the above statute or, for a simplified layman’s approach, check out this wiki link:
At this point, one who may be inclined to spot political conspiracies would begin to see a scenario in which a potential decision made at the state level would be filtered down to the mayor who has the power to dismiss BPA board members if his wishes (despite public outcry) are not met. Speculation?
Before you bemoan the mention of potential backroom deals and political intrigue involving ousting board members, consider THIS inconvenient fact:
All the board members of all the city agencies are democratically elected to full terms, such as you would any of your political leaders and representatives.
Except for the Bethlehem Parking Authority.
The BPA alone falls under this mayoral power play–the MAYOR can fire a board member at will. And what’s more is that this power is MANDATED BY THE STATE.
So, again, ultimately the state oversees the BPA and has appointed the mayor with the power to rule the board at the local level. Don’t agree with the mayor? [cue the Donald Trump] YOU’RE FIRED!
And to underscore the point, again–the mayor does NOT have this power over ANY OTHER city agency, or to be blunt, those city agencies that actually fall under city control.
And finally, in our exploration of the politics behind the BPA, we come to the County of Northampton. How? Follow this:
As many of us know, there is no “in house” system or personnel with which to fight parking tickets within the BPA themselves. Even if you are completely justified in your complaint, no body of evidence can be taken to the BPA–you must risk paying up to NINE TIMES the ticket fine in order to go before the magistrate (county employee) in order to plea your case (a $10 dollar ticket turns into a $90 ticket after court fees).
I have fought about 10 tickets in my time. I have won once. Many people (perhaps YOU are one of them), whether they feel justified or not, would rather pay the $10 than risk seeking true justice and end up with a $90 fine.
And Lord forbid you take a stand and refuse to pay your ticket. You’ll receive warrants for your arrest. I would dare say that everyone reading this knows someone who has had warrants and probably knows someone who went to jail over the BPA. With all of the crimes and injustices in the world, the fact that our constables are driving around to knock on doors and take people away for PARKING TICKETS remains, quite possibly, the greatest absurdity I’ve had the displeasure to witness.
And so, after your court fees, finally we find a local government who makes their chunk of money off the BPA–County of Northampton Magistrate offices. Who, incidentally, dispatch the constables to enforce the will of this seemingly private company operating as a veiled city authority.
The BPA. A “city” agency that must seek permission for meters and rates from the mayor, yet is run by their own private board who ultimately answer to the state but can be fired by the mayor of Bethlehem, whose city makes no money from the BPA, and who has the county handle their ticket collections.
Welcome to the discombobulated, corrupt, bureaucratically hogtied mess that is American politics…all microcosmed in the running of our very own hated Bethlehem Parking Authority.
In the next issue: more facts, including an in-depth look at the proposed “Smart” Parking Meters.The information contained in this article comes from the BPA themselves, members of the City Clerk’s office and a very helpful council member, all of whom will respectfully remain unnamed as of this issue (permission being sought).