City commissioners question expense of technology that will help drivers find spaces in the State Street garage

City staff explains that the system is important for data collection, as the city prepares to implement another paid parking program

The State Street garage opened in downtown Sarasota in the latter part of 2015. File photo

A technology City of Sarasota staff has touted for its ability to help drivers find parking spaces more readily in the State Street parking garage came under brief fire during the April 3 meeting of the City Commission.

Ultimately, all five board members supported the complete funding of the system, though Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie voiced opposition — as she has in the past — to the lumping of budget amendments in one resolution for a single vote.

The Consent Agenda item of routine business that drew Freeland Eddie’s and Commissioner Liz Alpert’s attention was a staff request to transfer $7,000 within the Community Redevelopment Fund from a discretionary project account to “the Parking Garage Occupancy Count System Project.” It was one of the items in a proposed resolution amending the 2017 fiscal year budget, which went into effect on Oct. 1, 2016.

“Have we already allocated the rest of [the money for that]?” Commissioner Liz Alpert asked about the garage project; she had requested the item be pulled from the Consent Agenda for discussion.

Kelly Strickland. Image contributed by City of Sarasota

City Finance Director Kelly Strickland explained that staff had allocated $164,500 for the parking garage program. “Originally, we thought it would be around $171,000 or $172,000,” she added of the cost. However, a year or two ago, staff “needed some extra money for valet parking” when the State Street garage was under construction in downtown Sarasota, she pointed out. Therefore, staff took the $7,000 out of the parking count system allocation to cover the valet expense. Staff figured, she added, that when the time came to pay for the parking technology, staff would ask the board to reallocate funds to cover the gap.

“It seems like a lot of money for counting cars going into the garages,” Alpert responded.

Mayor Willie Shaw concurred.

Then City Manager Tom Barwin asked the board to allow him to provide some clarity. Although he said he was reluctant to call this a “high-tech” system, it “will identify where vacant parking spots are in a garage and tell the motorists coming in where they are.”

In his Feb. 17 newsletter, Barwin wrote about the program, noting that the sensors were being installed and that a testing period of three to four months would ensue before the corresponding app would be debuted for drivers. The installation of the sensors was expected to be completed by the Feb. 17 or 18, he added in that newsletter.

The system is “very citizen-friendly,” he pointed out to the commissioners on April 3.

A worker installs a sensor on Links Avenue in downtown Sarasota in February as part of a system that will enable staff to collect data about use of spaces. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

“Don’t you just drive until you find a spot?” Freeland Eddie asked, eliciting laughter from some of her colleagues. “I mean, do we need software for that?”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Alpert replied.

“This is gonna tell drivers, motorists, exactly where to go, exactly how many spots are available,” Barwin responded.

Assistant City Manager John Lege — the city’s former finance director — pointed out that the app also will guide drivers to the level of the garage where spaces are open.

“Importantly,” Barwin noted, “when the garage is full, it will tell people that it’s full. You don’t have to navigate all up and down [within the structure, in a futile search for a space]. Hopefully, the garage won’t be full that often.” Still, he said, more and more drivers are seeking spaces in downtown Sarasota.

Continuing concerns

City Commissioner Liz Alpert. Image from Liz Alpert Law

“It just seemed like an awful lot of money for something that would be nice to have but didn’t seem really critical,” Alpert told him.

When planning was underway for the State Street garage, Lege explained, the installation of the equipment was a facet of the design.

When Freeland Eddie asked whether the city will incur an annual maintenance cost for the system, Lege replied, “I’m not aware of an annual cost at this point,” indicating that inexpensive routine maintenance was all he anticipated. He said he would provide the information to her later, as he did not have it with him that afternoon.

Then Commissioner Suzanne Atwell came to the defense of the staff. “Given the community — I shouldn’t say, ‘outcry’ — but all our talk about … parking and traffic … This is all part of a management system. I think this is very critical that we do this.”

She and Barwin noted that the system is in place in many other cities.

“The way our community is growing exponentially, especially downtown,” Atwell added, “this is very critical.”

Then Barwin explained, “What this really does for us, it helps us to identify the numbers and the users in the garage and the hours they’re using [the garage] and the rhythms of the garage,” without implementation of parking fees “and gates coming up and down.”

Shaw pointed out that if he were using the app and a driver ahead of him were using the app, that driver would beat him to the open space the app had indicated. “I’m not being facetious when I say this,” he added. “I understand we need a database,” Shaw said. Nonetheless, common sense would tell him that someone in front of him would take the space before he could reach it.

John Lege III. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

Lege responded that the app would tell drivers where the majority of open parking spots are located in the garage.

“It certainly makes more sense to me if the system is alternately being used for data collection,” Alpert said. “It seems a little more useful and a little more worth the expense.”

Lege explained that as the city prepares to implement another paid parking system on downtown streets, data collection is important in helping staff determine appropriate rates. The State Street garage technology is another means of collecting data, he added.

When Shaw called for a vote, Alpert made the motion to approve the budget resolution, and Atwell seconded it.

Freeland Eddie indicated she still had questions about the parking system, but she said she would support the motion. Then she asked staff again, in the future, to separate budget items for board votes so resolutions such as the one on the April 3 agenda no longer would be a matter for board members of supporting “all or nothing.”