City to phase in downtown resident parking fees
City Council members have agreed to phase in higher parking fees for existing downtown residents over five years, rather than three as administrators had suggested.
The decision came after members conceded their previous instructions to the city’s lawyers to “find us a damn loophole” to exempt “pioneer” residents of downtown from the fee increase had failed.
City Attorney Patrick Baker said a pioneer exemption would likely have been found found “arbitrary and capricious” had other residents sued the city.
“You’re talking then about retroactively defining what the program is and we think that would … not withstand legal challenge,” Baker said.
The decision nonetheless means that people who moved into condos or other homes inside the downtown loop after Sept. 30 will pay the city-defined “market rate” for parking. That’s $55 a month for access to surface lots, and $65 a month for deck space.
Downtown residents until now been charged only $10 a month for evening and weekend parking, and sometimes not even that.
The phase-in means that rates for pre-Oct. 1 residents will escalate each year until hitting market rate at the start of 2019 city Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen said.
He added the two-year delay will likely cost the city about $100,000 in revenue.
A rate increase is in line with the advice city officials have received from parking consultants, and with the council’s desire to reduce the $2 million annual tax subsidy that goes into the downtown parking system to help pay for maintenance, operations and debt.
But it led to a clash through much of last year with the 130 people who live downtown and hold a city-issued parking permit.
Some contended the increase was excessive and others objected to the idea of paying at all. The latter group contended officials had used the offer of free parking to induce people to move downtown following the collapse of the tobacco industry.
The actual legal history of the city’s parking rates is much more tangled, and includes a period in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the city had a fee for residents on the books that administrators didn’t bother collecting.
City officials started using the word “pioneer” late in the debate to signify people who moved downtown prior to about 2008. The “loophole” urging came from Councilman Eugene Brown, one of the elected officials most sympathetic to those who opted to buy homes downtown before it was fashionable to do so.
Baker was initially willing to try, but his stance hardened between a council work session in early December and the recent business meeting where members decided the issue.
He said the most defensible distinction he can make is “between all current residents and then, going forward, all future residents.”
The suggestion of a five-year phase-in came from Councilman Steve Schewel. Another councilman, Don Moffitt, initially suggested a 10-year phase-in but wound up backing Schewel’s idea.
“When we’re charging full rates, we’re asking 130 people to pay out an additional $100,000” annually, Moffitt said. “And these are people already paying a 12 percent higher property tax rate than we pay.”
Moffitt’s mention of a higher tax rate for downtown residents alluded to the “business improvement district” tax surcharge the city instituted in fiscal 2012-13 for downtown property at the request of Downtown Durham Inc.
The surcharge adds 7 cents per $100 of assessed value to the city tax bill of a downtown property owner. It pays among other things for extra street and litter clean-ups.