MEDIA COURTHOUSE — Widener University has filed a complaint of trespass against the city of Chester and wants a preliminary injunction against the installation of parking meters on campus that it claims could cause more than $30 million in lost revenue if carried out.
“The city’s parking fee jeopardizes the undergraduate commuter enrollment and even the resident enrollment, a portion of which relies upon street parking and has done so for decades,” according to the petition filed Wednesday in the Delaware County Common Pleas Court by attorneys Rocco Imperatrice III and Andrew Stafford on behalf of Widener.
“Should (Widener) lose its commuter enrollment, (it) would lose a significant amount of revenue annually,” the petition says. “Furthermore, even a fraction of the lost revenue would jeopardize the services to the community, employees and residents.”
The complaint names the city and Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland as defendants, along with PFS VII LLC, the Delaware company responsible for managing the meters, and two unnamed contractors installing the meters.
Chester Solicitor Kenneth Schuster did not respond to a call seeking comment Thursday.
The complaint alleges three claims for continuing and permanent trespass and one count of conspiracy against the defendants, for which the university is seeking compensatory and punitive damages. The petition additionally seeks a preliminary injunction against the installation of meters on Widener property.
According to the complaint, the city authorized an agreement with Pango USA LLC to provide mobile parking payment services in February 2017. Pango allows customers to find and use empty spots using an app, and to pay for the spot through the app or by using more traditional methods such as coins or debit cards.
The city also entered into a $1 million agreement with PFS in September 2018 to install and manage kiosks, meters, lighting, security cameras and collection activities for some 1,500 meters across the city, according to the complaint. The meters are being installed in three phases, beginning with 1,200 located in and around Widener’s campus. The remaining 300 would be placed in city lots.
“I’m really at a loss as to why the mayor and city council would take these steps, which seem to be – even to an objective observer – directed against Widener,” said Imperatrice Thursday. “I’ve represented Widener for 38 years and I’ve never seen anything as intrusive, improper, inappropriate and as obnoxious as this plan that the city has rolled out.”
Widener says installation began in November, but it did not become aware of the city’s “comprehensive parking plan” until Dec. 4. The complaint notes parking enforcement is scheduled to commence Jan. 14, the same day Widener students arrive to begin the spring semester.
Imperatrice said he believes only the poles have been installed so far. Once operational, however, the meters will cost $2 per hour, according to the complaint. Drivers can also opt to pay $48 for 24 hours, $336 for a seven-day week or “a staggering” $1,080 for a full month, the complaint says.
“The installation of 1,200 paid meters directly surrounding Widener University is nothing more than an attack on Widener University, its employees and its students,” said Imperatrice. “It’s an impossible tax for all those groups of people to bear and it has to be stopped.”
Imperatrice said about 3,200 students have already signed a petition opposing the meters, which he says will impact the university’s ability to attract and retain students and faculty. Many of those working at the school are also city residents, he added, and they also find the imposition outrageous.
Widener says it never gave the defendants permission to install the meters and they do not serve a proper public purpose.
“The city and its contractors are seeking to install parking meters illegally on (Widener’s) property for the sole purpose of raising revenue,” the complaint claims.
Widener notes 4,100 of the 5,600 undergraduate and graduate students attending classes are commuters, many of which rely on street parking. If the university were to lose revenue from those commuter students, it warns, it may have to reduce staff, scholarships and “substantial financial support” that it provides to the Chester community.
The complaint points to a litany of benefits and services the university provides the city, including funding for a full-time Chester police officer and police vehicle as well as a campus security force; discounted tuition rates for city employees; installation and management of $662,000 worth of security cameras in the northern section of the city through a grant; and the $50 million University Crossings revitalization project at 15th Street and Providence Avenue, a previously tax-exempt property that the university estimates will generate $500,000 in tax revenues over the next 10 years.
The university additionally provides numerous low- or no-cost services for the community, according to the complaint, including use of facilities, a pro bono physical therapy clinic, various counseling and training initiatives, and partnerships to address everything from prison reentry to food insecurity to small business development.
“Should Widener lose its commuter enrollment and, estimating a 20 percent loss of resident enrollment, the lost annual revenue to Widener would be a staggering $30,600,000, or 20 percent of the university’s annual revenue,” according to the complaint. “Even a fraction of the lost revenue … would jeopardize not only the services to the city, the community, employees and residents, but also would threaten the very existence and continued operation of the university.”
Imperatrice said he is hoping the petition will result in judicial intervention in the very short term, but he has also asked the city to push back the enforcement date until a hearing before the court can take place. He said he has not gotten word back from the city solicitor’s office on that yet.