- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2004

The contractor hired to manage Metro’s parking lots and garages is at fault for the loss of millions of dollars to employee theft, transit agency officials said yesterday.

Metro General Manager Richard A. White acknowledged the transit agency’s share of the blame, but reiterated that privately owned Penn Parking is culpable for the actions of its employees — some of whom are accused in an internal Metro audit of stealing $500,000 to $1 million a year from cash payments made at parking lots and garages.

“This is an issue of shared responsibility,” Mr. White said. “It is abundantly clear in the contracts that protection for [Metro] against employee theft is the responsibility of [Penn Parking].”

The dispute has arisen amid proposals for the second increase in rail and bus fares in two years. Metro is trying to cut almost $47 million from its fiscal 2005 budget to erase a deficit of $28.8 million to $36 million, depending on the subsidies provided by local jurisdictions.

Under the proposals, peak-hour base rail fares would increase 15 cents to 30 cents, and off-peak base fares would rise 5 cents to 20 cents. Bus fares would go to $1.25, an increase of 5 cents. Daily parking would go up 25 cents to $1, and the monthly parking spot reservation fees would rise by $10. Metrorail mileage charges would increase from 3 cents to 21 cents.

Metro Board members have expressed outrage and embarrassment over the transit agency’s loss of millions of dollars amid its call for fare increases.

The transit agency has fired 33 cashiers, and two face felony theft charges.

Metro Board member Jim Graham, a Democrat who represents Ward 1 on the D.C. Council, attended a protest held Wednesday by union officials representing 15 of the fired employees. He questioned the terminations of the cashiers while supervisors and managers have gone unpunished.

“If virtually every employee is stealing hand over fist, where are the supervisors at Penn Parking? Why are they not held responsible?”

Board member Chris Zimmerman, a Democrat who also serves on the Arlington County Board, said he also was concerned that lower-level workers were receiving the brunt of the scrutiny and punishment.

“The only disciplinary action that has been taken has been against the lowest-paid employees,” he said. “Something about that isn’t right.”

The audit — conducted last year after Metro received an anonymous tip of suspected thievery — includes a calculation in which actual revenue shortfalls at four stations over the course of 48 days came to $29,738.

The audit estimates a parking revenue shortfall of $500,000 to $1 million annually.

Metro officials have said they documented improper money handling and administrative procedures using surveillance and other equipment.

Board members pressed transit agency officials for a more accurate amount of how much was stolen. Mr. Graham suggested that an outside party be brought in to assess the situation.

“For me and many other people, the magnitude of the theft is [important].”

Mr. Zimmerman agreed that a more exact figure is needed to determine whether the problem has been sufficiently addressed. “If [the total] is at the higher end, no way [the theft] has been taken care of just by firing cashiers.”

Penn Parking representatives said Metro was informed of a theft problem nearly four years ago. They cited difficulty in properly documenting collected revenue because of Metro’s defective and outdated equipment at the lots.

Metro refuted that claim, saying new equipment is being installed and that the contractor is responsible for controlling theft by its employees.

“It’s always been Penn’s stance to claim equipment malfunction, even at stations where we have no equipment,” Mr. White said.

Officials said next week they will discuss termination of the contract with Penn Parking based on a breach.

“If it’s not a material breach [of contract], then it is definitely a focused effort to avoid responsibility,” Mr. White said.

The contract pays Penn Parking $3.1 million annually. Metro can opt out of the contract in September 2005.

Plans to convert to a cashless system will be discussed at the next meeting to eliminate theft and minimize discrepancies.

Officials say 71 percent of Metro customers use SmarTrip cards.

The automated system would require parking fees anytime, including after hours and weekends. Parking at Metro-operated lots currently is free on weekends and federal holidays, and fares are collected weekdays upon exit between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Metro estimates it loses $1 million annually by restricting collection times.

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