Aspen parking director reassigned in wake of meter scam | AspenTimes.com

Aspen parking director reassigned in wake of meter scam

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

The city of Aspen reassigned the parking director to a new position Wednesday, the same day officials announced they are moving forward with a third-party review of city operations in light of a parking-meter scam that resulted in more than $600,000 in fraudulent transactions since 2010.

Tim Ware, who has served as the Parking Department director since 1997, will start as the ice facilities supervisor Monday. The parking director's annual salary is $87,520, while the ice facilities supervisor position pays $58,340, City Manager Steve Barwick said.

The city is in talks with Avon-based McMahan & Associates, an accounting firm that conducts annual audits for the city, Barwick said Wednesday. The firm is expected to work with Aspen's Financial Advisory Board, a group of longtime residents that will serve as a liaison to the Aspen City Council.

Installed in 2007 by Toronto-based vendor Precise Parklink Inc., Aspen's parking meters have been susceptible to a scam where drivers use prepaid, maxed-out debit cards. Because the system employs batch processing, the cards are not declined until the end of the day, even though paid-parking is granted. Finance Department estimates show that widespread fraud began two years ago, with losses of $37,800 in 2011 and $78,036 in 2012 before ballooning to $227,220 in 2013 and $448,000 so far in 2014. The total since 2010 comes in at $817,000, though Finance Director Don Taylor attributes about $121,000 to non-fraudulent transactions made by motorists ignorant to the scam.

City spokeswoman Mitzi Rapkin said finance and parking officials met in 2011 to discuss a $365,000 upgrade that would have allowed the meters to process payments in real-time. Because monthly losses were averaging $3,150 a month, officials decided against the expensive upgrade.

The meters are on a 10-year replacement schedule, but with three years left, officials are opting to buy a new 81-meter system for $600,000, which will be installed in December.

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Barwick wrote in an email to the council that Ware's reassignment was directly related to the parking-meter scam issue, citing that "ultimately the responsibility for overseeing the parking budget is the director's responsibility."

Last week, the Aspen Police Department announced an investigation into the scam and its perpetrators. This week all five council members agreed that a third-party review of city operations is needed, as well.

Councilwoman Ann Mullins said that while there are examples of blatant fraud — according to records, one debit card racked up 117 declined transactions in July alone — the city needs to be held accountable, too.

"I don't want the focus of the discussion to be entirely on the people who scammed the system," Mullins said. "It's not entirely their fault that this has happened. The city is very accountable for what happened, too."

She also expressed disappointment that the previous council wasn't made aware of the upgrade option in 2011.

"If it had been caught earlier or talked about or brought to everyone's attention earlier, there might have been a cheaper, easier fix at that time, before being in the hole now, what, $1.5 million," she said.

Mayor Steve Skadron also supported the third-party review, saying "nothing is more important than public trust in government."

"We all want to be certain things are running appropriately," Skadron said. "I have confidence that they are, and I want to address any perception that things are not being done appropriately."

Councilman Adam Frisch said that while the review will most likely analyze both financing and policy issues, he is more concerned that the right policies are in place moving forward. He said every city department probably took a step back when the parking issue came to light.

"After hearing what happened with the Parking Department, I'm sure every department went back to their offices the next morning and asked everyone to gather around and double and triple check to make sure that the beans were counted," he said.

Councilman Art Daily said an outside review is best for the community as a whole. He added that he expects city staff has done all it can at this point and a "fresh set of eyes" will be good. Councilman Dwayne Romero wrote Monday in a letter to the editor that he supports a third-party review.

Included in Barwick's email to the council was a rough draft of the review designed by McMahan & Associates, which Barwick said will "look across the city and is not focused solely on the current parking issue. The goal is to investigate areas for improvement and implement recommended measures. … The objective of the examination is to determine if the city's internal financial controls as designed are effective."

The Financial Advisory Board — headed by retired banker Howie Mallory, Aspen Music Festival finance administrator Jenny Elliot and former Clorox Co. executive Pete Louras — will work with McMahan & Associates to determine scope of work and cost of the review.

herk@aspentimes.com