Insult to Injury
Thievery has been reported at the Will Rogers Memorial Center parking lot. How much money is missing? That’s hard to say. City officials don’t want to talk about it. Neither do officials at Standard Parking, the vendor that oversees the paid lots.
The only person eager to talk is a former employee who did not want his identity revealed. He called Fort Worth Weekly recently to describe thefts of parking revenues amounting to thousands of dollars.
“There is a lot of crap going on there,” the caller said. “You would think that with an account as big as Fort Worth — and I consider Will Rogers the jewel — [Standard Parking] would get people in there that aren’t supplementing their income with money they’re taking from patrons.”
Except for events like the rodeo, parking was free for many years at the city-owned lots near Will Rogers in the Cultural District. Cars stream in by the thousands for three weeks during the Fort Worth Stock Show. The city took on $27 million in debt to build the seven-story Western Heritage parking garage on Gendy Street to handle the overflow of Stock Show crowds.
To pay for the garage, city officials in 2010 approved a $5 fee year- round for parking in the garage and the surrounding lots. Residents were appalled. Vendors at the Cattle Barn flea market, the oldest ongoing flea market in town, complained that the fee drove away customers and vendors alike. Employees at area museums were pissed, suddenly having to pay to park near work. Making the fees more painful is the fact that the garage and the lots are sprawling seas of nearly empty asphalt on most days.
“In the past two years since the $5 paid parking started, my café business in that location is down 90 percent,” said co-owner Carlo Capua. “It’s totally killed our traffic. Before the paid parking, we were almost full every day. An increase to $8 would probably kill off the last 10 percent.”
Capua has opened a second location a few miles farther east in the Hospital District and said business there is “great.” He wants to keep his café in the Cultural District for as long as possible. The café partners with the nonprofit Samaritan House to provide training and job opportunities for people affected by HIV/AIDS.
The anonymous caller described the thefts this way: Managers give supervisors rolls of tickets to distribute to parking attendants. Those tickets in turn are sold to motorists wanting to park. Supervisors log the tickets to keep track of how many are sold, and they visit attendants during their shift to make a “drop” or collect the corresponding amount of money.
But ticket rolls have been given to attendants without being logged in first, the caller said. He described a situation last year in which a supervisor gave unaccounted-for rolls of tickets to two attendants, who then sold them and split the money with the supervisor. The city never knew it was being cheated, the caller said. Ticket rolls can contain several hundred individual tickets worth $5 a pop, totaling thousands of dollars.
In a parking business that deals in cash, “If there is a way to steal money, people will figure it out,” the caller said. “The way they got it set up is like putting a screen door on a submarine.”
Standard Parking manages more than 2,000 garages nationwide. In April, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland reported that Cuyahoga County prosecutors indicted 20 employees at Standard Parking in connection with the felony theft of about $160,000 in stolen parking revenues between 2008 and 2009. The thefts involved managers, cashiers, and gatekeepers working at downtown Cleveland parking garages.
The former employee at the Fort Worth lot described another incident that occurred in February during a gun show. A supervisor collected several hours’ worth of receipts from a parking attendant but didn’t turn it over to Standard Parking. The money remains missing, and the supervisor no longer works with Standard.
That incident was confirmed after the Weekly filed an open records request for thefts reported at the parking lots near Will Rogers. On March 20, Standard Parking manager Steven Garland called police to report a theft of $564. According to the report, a supervisor said she misplaced $564 in February. Garland told police that he suspected the supervisor stole the money and had made up the story about misplacing it. The supervisor is not named in the report. She did not return to work after claiming to have lost the money.
City spokesman Bill Begley referred questions to Standard Parking. A local manager at Standard referred questions to corporate headquarters in Chicago. Company spokesman Mike Wolf provided little information.
“We would never comment on any existing theft,” he said. “It’s a confidentiality and privacy concern for a whole bunch of folks.”
The Weekly’s calls to Fort Worth public events director Kirk Slaughter were not returned. Slaughter oversees the parking lots.
Begley said Standard fired the employee who was accused of theft in February.
“There’s been a report sent in to the police, and as far as I know it’s an active case,” he said.
Police spokesman Daniel Segura said the case is still open and no charges have been filed.
Standard Parking has implemented safeguards to prevent future thefts, Begley said, but he provided no details.
A three-year management contract between Standard and the city went into effect on Feb. 1, 2010. Standard is required to turn over all parking revenues to the city, and the city then pays management fees and expenses to Standard.
The contract requires Standard to provide a monthly report on revenues and expenses and allows city officials to “examine and photocopy any directly pertinent books, documents, papers, and records … involving transactions relating to this contract.”
So far, the city hasn’t done that.
The former employee said that Standard pays its attendants less than $10 an hour and that turnover is high because of low pay and the boredom of sitting in a hot ticket booth for hours on end.
“They just shove warm bodies in there,” he said. “It’s one big revolving door … . People walk off the job all the time.”
In April, the Fort Worth City Council discussed raising the parking fees to $8. Staffers said parking revenues aren’t covering the debt load for the parking garage. Slaughter supported the rate increase.
People hosting events at Will Rogers grumbled about the proposed increase and said they would consider moving their events elsewhere. The Dolly Johnson Antique and Art Show has been a fixture at Will Rogers — the event is celebrating its 50th anniversary there in March. But the event won’t make it to 51 years at that location if the parking rates go up, show director Jan Orr-Harter said.
“Eight dollars is a deal-breaker for us,” she said. “I would have to subsidize [vendors] for parking or something.”
The first year that Standard Parking managed the parking was a fiasco during the antique show, she said. An attendant accepting money showed little enthusiasm or hustle, and long lines of cars with angry drivers stretched onto surrounding streets. But Orr-Harter was impressed the following year when Standard showed greater efficiency.
Still, she said, locals bristle at having to pay after decades of free parking.
“People feel that the Cultural District belongs to the public,” she said. “My own mother will not even go in principle. There are a lot of people who are longtime Fort Worth residents who are angry and resentful and don’t understand why the city has done that.”
Out-of-towners don’t seem to be fazed by the parking charge, but locals suspect a sweetheart deal between the city and the Stock Show executives.
“[Locals] resent the fact that the garage was built for the Stock Show and the horse shows, and those events are not paying their fair share of the cost of that garage,” Orr-Harter said.