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Selling off our assets not that far-fetched

April 21, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

People in Washington County should concern themselves with the following passage from the Chicago Tribune, which appeared two days after Christmas:

“In an annual ritual that has become as predictable if not as joyous as a New Year’s Eve countdown to midnight, Chicago drivers again will have to dig a little deeper to pay to park at meters in 2013.

“Loop rates will go up 75 cents to $6.50 an hour as part of scheduled fee increases included in Mayor Richard Daley’s much-criticized 2008 lease of the city’s meters to Chicago Parking Meters LLC.”

Chicago Parking Meters LLC?

Long story.

Essentially, the City of Chicago was facing a gaping hole in its budget five years ago, which it creatively closed by doing a deal with the ultimate devil — Wall Street bankers, who found investors who were more than willing to put up $1.5 billion for a long-term lease that will reap $11 billion in parking fees.

Having infiltrated the public infrastructure, this private entity ruthlessly raises rates (residential neighborhoods have seen rates go from a quarter to up to $4) and refuses to allow the city to shut down its own streets for a parade or a festival — unless the city writes Chicago Parking Meters LLC a check for lost revenue.

Who is Chicago Parking Meters LLC? “Griftopia” author Matt Taibbi suggests that Middle Eastern investors are a big part of it and might even have controlling interest.

Sadly, selling off control of our national assets is by no means limited to Chicago. Foreign investors were even courted by Pennsylvania, and eventually made a $12.8 million bid for a 75-year lease of the iconic Pennsylvania Turnpike. The deal was eventually scuttled by the state legislature.

This trend of selling off American public assets to private, global investors came about due to our 20-year phobia of any type of tax increase. Or, you could say, our 40-year aversion to any form of budget restraint. But the fact of the matter is that financially strapped governments will always discover new revenue streams before engaging in painful cuts.

Speed cameras, another public job that has been assigned to private, profit-motivated interests, have been worming their way into Maryland with predictable results. Last year the Baltimore Sun published a devastating report card enumerating the many flaws of speed cameras, but this year’s General Assembly failed to pass any safeguards against errors and abuse.

Government watchdogs over private excess lose their zeal when they are in on the take.

Of course the government tells us that it’s not about revenue, it’s about “public safety,” a term that should strike fear into the heart of any liberty loving American. Speed cameras, they say, are only used to keep our children safe in school zones.

Washington County might have the state’s only forthright politician in Sheriff Doug Mullendore, who recently suggested speed cameras as a revenue source to fund construction of a day-reporting center.

While punishing for the sake of profit is wrong on almost too many levels to count, credit the sheriff for two things: One, the day reporting center is a good idea, and second, at least he’s honest about the goal of speed cameras.

The thing is, Mullendore should never have been put in this position. The day reporting center — designed to educate and rehabilitate instead of imprison — has been talked about for years, and commissioners should have worked it into the budget a long time ago. It is one of the few projects that is both humane for addicts and petty thieves, and saves taxpayer money at the same time.

But look for the commissioners to take the easy out and fund it by throwing county motorists to the sharks.

Is that good? You tell me. How long before speed cameras are at the bottom of every hill, and not just in school zones? Nor is it beyond belief that at some point in the future, should Washington County face a confounding budget gap, that the commissioners might lease away their speeding ticket revenue in exchange for one lump sum — thereby putting our motorists at the mercy of some private concern.

Far-fetched? No more far-fetched than the attempted sale of control over the first link in America’s great interstate highway system to the Spaniards.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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