Lots of Profit

Where does free enterprise end and profiteering begin? The answer depends on which side of the dollar you're on. And in this case, Denver city officials are caught in the middle.

Manager of Safety Fidel "Butch" Montoya has been called upon to mediate a dispute between the manager of a downtown parking lot and a consortium of media covering the Oklahoma City bombing case following a complaint by the consortium of "price-gouging" and "huge price increases."

"The feds have bent over backwards to help us get cables, get tunnels in [for the cables]--and the city has been great," says Wayne Wicks, spokesman for the media consortium. "Now we've got a businessman who says, 'I've got an opportunity.'" That opportunity translates into a $1,200 daily fee for media outlets to rent a sixty-space parking lot just across 20th Street from the U.S. Courthouse.

But Dan Bragassa, vice-president of Allright Colorado, says his rates are not out of line, particularly when considering the problems posed by filling his lot with trucks, trailers and satellite dishes. "We park cars for a living," he says, exasperation evident in his voice. "That's what we do for a business. I've been threatened with stories in the media about how we're price-gouging. If the media is going to threaten us and badmouth us to the city and to the rest of the business community, my position is, I don't need the headache...I'd just as soon let them find other options."

But the problem, according to Wicks, is that there is no other option.
When it was announced this past spring that the bombing case would be coming to Denver, media reps descended on the city to begin advance planning. Of major concern to television crews was that they obtain a site near the courthouse where they could get a clear microwave path to a repeater on top of the Amoco Building. (A repeater amplifies and reroutes signals to television stations or to satellites that can beam the video to stations nationwide.)

After a scouting expedition, the broadcast groups determined that the only feasible place to park their trucks was the Allright lot at 20th and Stout, where the going rate to park a car is $3.75 a day. They would, they said, require the use of the entire lot.

Montoya, acting as a liaison for the city, then agreed to lease the lot for $1,100 per day for the pre-trial hearings, and the broadcasters reimbursed the city. (Consortium members later took over the lease and agreed to a $1,200 per diem rate, splitting the cost among themselves. Although there are 53 consortium members, Wicks says only five or six of them may ultimately need, and chip in for, the lot.) That price was acceptable when the television folks needed the space for three or four days at a time. But with March 31 and the start of the trial on the horizon, the thought of paying $1,200 daily for six months or so became galling.

"That money can add up quickly," says Montoya, himself a former TV news director for KUSA/Channel 9. "The bean counters back in New York whose job it is to be concerned about those things are calling all these expenses into question." Wicks says consortium members believe they should have to pay only $3.75 per day for the sixty spots, or $225 total.

And if the bean counters haven't yet questioned Allright's insurance requirements, Wicks has made up for their silence. "Everybody had to purchase a million-dollar liability insurance policy and name Allright as the beneficiary before they even let us park there," he complains.

Bragassa's not exactly sympathetic. "They look at the sign and it says [$3.75] a day," Bragassa says, "but there are lots in Denver that turn over [a parking space] eight or nine times." And if he does make a little more money on the lot during the course of the trial, that's just what he's supposed to be doing as a manager for the lot's owners (whom he will not name). "I've got to do the right thing by the owners of the property. I have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize the income on the property," he says.

"This whole idea of price-gouging--I just don't understand it. It seems like the media think they're entitled to use the property at a rate they think is a fair rate. Is there one set of the rules for the media and one for us? Ask them how much they get for a thirty-second spot during the Super Bowl. Is it the same amount they get for a gardening show on Sundays? No. It's supply and demand. It's just business."

And because it is business, Denver officials have been loath to interfere, although Montoya asked for and has received a parking-price survey conducted by staffers at the city's parking-management department. That survey, Montoya says, found Bragassa's rates to be "typical and customary" for those charged during a special event.

With regard to liability insurance, Bragassa says his company requires it from any entity using a lot for any purpose other than parking a car--for example, amusement rides at the annual Taste of Colorado in Civic Center. In addition, Montoya says, Allright employs the same insurance language in its leases as the city does in renting out its own lots.

Montoya says city officials hope to meet jointly with Bragassa and Wicks to re-establish cordial relations--if not lower prices. But first they'll have to win over Bragassa, who's miffed because Wicks and other consortium members went to the mayor and Montoya before discussing their complaints with him. "They should have had the decency to come out and talk to me," he says.

First, however, consortium members have to do a little talking among themselves. Finances were a topic of discussion at their January 6 meeting, but a primary concern was the amount they have to pay for Wicks, not parking. Wicks, who claims to have helped coordinate media events ranging from the Pope's 1993 visit to Denver to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, was chosen last year to act as the consortium's part-time trial liaison. He was paid $250 a day.

But in a move that has since drawn controversy, some consortium members voted last November to appoint Wicks to a full-time position beginning January 1. His salary? A generous $2,500 a week.

The vote, some members complained, took place while Wicks was present, and they felt they could not voice their objections to the salary with him in the room. And many of them objected to pitching in for his wages when his true expertise is in the technical end of television broadcasting. Within a week or two of the meeting, representatives from several newspapers were considering seceding from the consortium.

The mutiny was temporarily headed off after consortium members met this week to discuss the issue a second time and after Wicks agreed to hold off on collecting his salary.

Wicks, however, still works on behalf of the media while awaiting final word on his wages. In a December 18 memo on "price-gouging," he vowed to "continue to bring things in line" for the upcoming trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. "I agree with all of you," he wrote, "that we should not be taken to the cleaners just to do our jobs or by a few of the opportunists that continue to haunt us."

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Karen Bowers