PORTLAND — In response to a federal investigation 3,000 miles away, the city has put the brakes on a $150,000 contract to buy new high-tech parking meters.

John Peverada, the city’s parking manager, said Tuesday that Portland will not immediately sign a contract with Cale Parking Systems USA, which is being investigated for alleged bribes or kickbacks to officials in Portland, Ore.

The city planned to sign with Cale USA this month, city officials said, but federal raids last week in Oregon and at the company’s headquarters in Florida have made them hesitant to commit to Cale USA.

“We’re not going to sign anything right now,” Peverada said. “We’re going to wait and see what happens in Portland, Oregon.”

The city has planned to buy 20 multi-space “SmartMeters” from Cale Parking Systems USA, to enable drivers to pay for parking with credit cards, debit cards or change.

The two-year contract would be part of a $200,000 pilot program that would help drivers without coins avoid parking tickets and provide relief to store owners who don’t like giving out change to non-customers. The City Council approved the program in late 2010.

“We started looking at this in 2009 because customers and store owners asked for alternative means of paying for parking meters,” Peverada said.

Now, that pilot program will wait. Peverada said the city would like to install the new parking meters this fall or next spring, but will wait for more developments in the federal case. The city notified Cale USA on Monday that it won’t immediately sign the contract.

If the federal investigation drags on, Peverada said, the city could switch to a different meter distributor. City Manager Mark Rees said “there’s no rush” to make a decision.

“The old way still works,” Rees said of the city’s coin-only parking meters, “so we’ve got some time to see what happens.”

According to published reports, agents from the FBI and the IRS raided offices at Cale Parking Systems USA and in Portland, Ore., on Thursday, after a grand jury issued a subpoena for certain records.

The federal inquiry is looking at bribes or kickbacks that a company executive allegedly gave to an official in Portland, Ore., exchange for city contracts, the last of which was worth $20 million.

The accusations actually surfaced three years ago, when city officials first suspected wrongdoing. Thursday’s raids were the first public action taken by a federal agency.

On Tuesday, an employee at the company’s Florida office hung up when contacted for comment. “We have no one who deals with the media and we have no comment at this time,” she said before ending the phone conversation.

Cale Parking Systems USA is the exclusive American distributor for the Swedish company Cale Access. It beat out two competitors, Parkeon and Digital/IPS, to win the contract with Portland, Maine.

The city selected Cale USA after a six-person committee of city staff members reviewed the proposals and interviewed representatives from Cale USA and Parkeon. Digital/IPS elected not interview after its proposal turned out to be significantly more costly than the other two.

Although Parkeon’s meters were $400 cheaper than Cale USA’s — Parkeon’s meters cost $7,150 each and Cale USA’s cost $7,550 — the committee decided to go with Cale USA.

In a memo to the city’s purchasing manager, Matt Fitzgerald, dated July 22, the committee said it chose Cale USA because it would provide free support 24 hours a day as well as superior equipment, including motion-sensored light bars on the meters, which light up the meters at night and make them easier to read.

Cale USA also got rave reviews from three cities in New Hampshire – Manchester, Concord and Portsmouth – that use its products. “We talked to the other communities and they had nothing but praise,” Peverada said.

Cale Parking Systems USA operates in 110 cities across the country, including Washington, D.C., Chicago and Baltimore. Parkeon is much bigger, with 3,000 cities and eight countries on its client list, including New York, Seattle, Miami and New Orleans.

A Parkeon representative contacted Portland, Maine, officials via email and told them of the investigation, Rees said, although some city employees learned of it through media reports.

A Parkeon representative spoke to Fitzgerald this week, hoping that the city would change its decision and give the parking contract to his company.

“Parkeon is waiting word on Portland’s next steps,” said Dan Kupferman, Parkeon’s business development manager. “Unfortunately, I can’t say anything more than that.”

SmartMeters have advantages beyond their ability to take credit or debit cards.

The city would need only one multi-space SmartMeter for every 10 parking spaces. In effect, that would create more parking space, officials said, because without meters to delineate spaces, a few more cars could squeeze alongside the sidewalks.

SmartMeters also can alert parking officials if they’re malfunctioning and send out notice when their coin boxes are getting full.

 

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or at: [email protected]