Council poised for major debate on parking fees

Oct. 19, 2013 @ 10:46 PM

City officials are preparing for the start Thursday of what could prove a difficult debate on the funding of public parking downtown and in the Ninth Street area.

Already, a consultant’s recommendation that the city begin charging for curbside parking in the Ninth Street district has sparked a deluge of protest emails from people opposed to the idea.

“I would hate to see us sell our distinctiveness and our future for a bag full of quarters,” said Bob Michael, among the many dozens of people who wrote the council to say the use of metered parking would wind up hurting Ninth Street businesses.

The email campaign began at the behest of Tom Campbell, an owner of The Regulator Bookshop on Ninth.

Officials also are bracing for complaints from downtown condo-dwellers about another piece of the consultants’ advice, that the city raise prices for monthly access to public parking garages and lots.

Their report included a suggestion that the city offer downtown residents three price points. On the high end, they recommend charging $90 for a monthly parking permit that guarantees a reserved, 24/7 space.

In the middle, they suggest raising to $65 from $55 the price for a monthly permit allowing its holder to use most city off-street parking, without the reserved-space guarantee. And on the low end, they would maintain a $10-a-month permit that allows nighttime-only access to the city’s decks, again without a reserved-space guarantee.

As on Ninth Street, the consultants are advising the city to begin charging for curbside parking downtown.

The proposed changes to monthly permit costs drew a howl of protest over the summer when officials moved, with the City Council’s permission, to begin implementing them in advance of a council review of the consultants’ full report.

Some residents said the suggested prices were too high, and others objected to the idea of paying anything at all.

“If you truly wish to empty the downtown of its current residents and replace them with the wealthy, this may well be an effective way to do it,” Coke Ariail, a West Main Street resident who moved downtown during the 1980s, said in an August email to the council.

The trouble for city officials, however, is existing fees don’t come close to covering what it costs their government to pay off, operate and properly maintain its network of decks and parking lots.

Consultants advise city leaders to make that clear to the public by rolling debt, operations and maintenance costs into one balance sheet, instead of scattering them among several departments as they’ve traditionally done.

They reckon that sort of “enterprise” accounting would show that as of fiscal 2013-13, the downtown parking system by itself requires about $2 million in annual taxpayer subsidy to make ends meet.

The city is collecting $2.7 million in fees for use of its downtown parking lots and garages, but paying $4.7 million to run them, consultants and city administrators calculate.

Council members briefly pondered the issue in late May, after it surfaced in two different meetings. It was clear they wanted, at that time, to reduce the system’s cost to taxpayers.

“Other folks in the community would not want to be subsidizing downtown parking rates,” Councilwoman Diane Catotti said in the second of the meetings, a review of the city’s 2013-14 budget. “People do not have an understanding of how expensive parking is.”

But the consultants’ report indicates that it would take a long time -- and a couple of big rate increases -- to get to a break-even point. They think it would be fiscal 2022-23 before the downtown system can operate in the black.

Ninth Street poses different issues, and consultants aren’t seeing a possibility of the city’s breaking even on parking there. They favor charging for curbside parking largely because the city’s getting ready to charge for off-street parking in the district.

Once people have to pay for off-street parking, they’ll fill up any free-of-charge curbside spaces that remain, the consultants say, adding that a Duke University-controlled lot off Perry Street has already triggered some problems along those lines.

A councilman who’s talked to critics of the downtown proposals, Don Moffitt, said Friday it’s possible officials will look for compromises on some issues.

“We just have to weigh it all out,” Moffitt said. “There are costs associated with parking, and how much of that should be born by the taxpayers and how much should be born by the people using that parking will be part of the debate.”