Four city commissioners make it plain they oppose meters, but two voice concerns about the continuing need for subsidies to the Parking Department
It took two motions — after confusion ensued over the first one. Nonetheless, after about an hour of discussion and pleas from the public, the Sarasota City Commission voted unanimously on Oct. 16 to direct staff to undertake the necessary research and then come back to the board with alternatives to metered parking in downtown Sarasota.
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch made the motion, and Vice Mayor Liz Alpert seconded it.
It followed a failed vote of 2-3 on a motion by Commissioner Hagen Brody to halt city staff from taking any steps to implement a metered parking program in the downtown area.
The confusion arose after Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie offered a friendly amendment — which Brody accepted — calling for staff to undertake a wide variety of research — including details about the expense of parking meters and projected revenue from them. The amendment included direction for the consultation of city staff with downtown merchants and a review of the proposed locations for the meters, which the previous City Commission discussed last year.
Brody emphasized that his motion — with the amendment — made it clear that “there are no meters going in [downtown] until further notice or approval from the commission.”
However, City Manager Tom Barwin pointed out that that is the status of the situation, based on the 2016 City Commission action.
“No, it’s not; no, it’s not,” Brody told Barwin. Downtown merchants and residents have been working under the assumption that the board vote last year meant meters would be installed, Brody added.
Alpert concurred with Barwin, having been on the commission in 2016 when the vote was taken.
Action and reaction
The City Commission minutes of Sept. 6, 2016 say that then-Commissioner Suzanne Atwell made a motion, which then-Commissioner Susan Chapman seconded, calling for staff to review equipment for a paid parking program, based on recommendations made by staff during that meeting. Only Freeland Eddie voted “No.”
During that session, Mark Lyons, manager of the city’s Parking Department, pointed out that the city’s General Fund has been subsidizing his department’s operations for years. The projection for the 2017 fiscal year was $625,000, he said.
On Oct. 16, Barwin noted that the 2017 figure ended up being $650,000. The subsidy from the General Fund was $500,000 in the 2015 fiscal year, Barwin added, and it was $420,000 in the 2016 fiscal year. It is projected to be $300,000 in the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.
“The parking meter’s been the default option,” Barwin pointed out, for ending those subsidies. The General Fund, he explained, is supposed to be used to cover the expenses of the Police Department and parks and recreation, for example, and road work in some cases. Comprised mostly of the property tax revenue the city receives, it is not supposed to cover Parking Department losses, he added.
In 2016, Lyons cited the work of an advisory board that had studied the issue. He then called for meters to be placed along Main Street between Gulfstream Avenue and School Avenue; on South Palm Avenue between Cocoanut Avenue and Ringling Boulevard; and on Ringling between School Avenue and Washington Boulevard. He also suggested the fee would be $1 per hour, with the meters operating between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Much of the discussion focused on the technological advantages that had taken place with design of meters in recent years and the importance of testing the equipment to make certain that the meters the city installed would be easy to operate.
Barwin also noted at the time that part of the goal was to manage traffic and ease congestion. “What we hope to eliminate is this pattern of circulating cars looking for that free parking spot.”
Back to the present
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues on Oct. 16 that she came to the meeting that day thinking that the agenda item indicated only a decision about whether to put the issue on a future agenda for “proper discussion.” That would follow staff’s having undertaken research and provided the resulting data to the board, “none of which I have; none of which I have,” she added.
“So I don’t feel that it’s appropriate to make a major decision about the city without any backup information. I have nothing,” she stressed.
Vice Mayor Alpert reiterated that the commission had directed staff in 2016 just to explore the potential for metered parking in downtown Sarasota.
Ahearn-Koch then added that she felt Brody’s motion and the mayor’s friendly amendment were contradictory.
“They’re not,” Brody insisted.
“Is [metered parking in downtown Sarasota] a done deal?” Ahearn-Koch asked City Manager Barwin.
He responded that it is not.
Brody insisted that his motion would keep staff from “experimenting with parking meters” in downtown Sarasota, in an effort to find equipment that worked well. He acknowledged that Barwin was correct in saying that the 2016 vote made it impossible for staff to purchase meters without the board’s approval.
Staff would be testing equipment to use — as approved recently by the commission — to install parking meters on St. Armands, Barwin explained. Plans call for the meters to go into use there in late 2018, he added. “We have not purchased any street meters,” he stressed.
If Brody’s motion won approval, Barwin noted, staff would just keep in mind that no equipment could be used “forever for the history of the world downtown.”
And while one public speaker alluded to city plans to charge $3 per hour at metered spaces in downtown Sarasota, Barwin said he was not sure where there figure originated, because the commission had not approved a fee schedule.
His goal, Brody told his colleagues, was “to provide certainty for the community.”
“Just to be clear,” Ahearn-Koch said, “I am not for parking meters. I have never been for parking meters. What I am for is process,” along with research into best practices.
“I have never supported parking meters,” Freeland Eddie said. “I am not convinced that the data that we have received … accurately reflects … the willingness of individuals to pay to park downtown.”
Barwin reprised Lyons’ revenue concerns, outlined in 2016. Over the past four fiscal years, Barwin said, the total of the subsidies to the Parking Department was about $1.8 million.
That was money that could have gone into programs to try to resolve the issues of chronic homelessness in downtown Sarasota, for one example, Barwin pointed out.
“We need to, as a responsible commission, address that [deficit],” Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues. Part of that discussion, she continued, should involve ideas other than installing parking meters. Nonetheless, she said, she did not want to preclude staff’s research into updated financial information in regard to use of meters.
“That was my friendly amendment 10 minutes ago,” Freeland Eddie replied.
“I would rather we not have meters, as well,” Alpert said. “If we can come up with a better way, I think that would be wonderful.”
Speakers averse to parking meters
Two representatives of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association were among the 11 speakers who urged the board not to install meters downtown once again.
Chip Beeman, owner of Pastry Art on Main Street, told the board, “We’re definitely against the placement of meters, period.”
A poll taken among downtown merchants last year, he continued, showed that 85% of them believe the meters would have “a negative impact on their business.” Some feel they could lose thousands of dollars a year, he added.
“Most all had poor results during the last meter experiment,” which ended in 2012, with some saying they lost tens of thousands of dollars in revenue.
In his September 2016 presentation, Parking Manager Lyons talked of the goal of making sure 15% of spaces are open at a given time in the downtown area, Beeman continued. “That means 15% less customers shopping downtown, or 15% less profit.”
Ron Soto, chair of that merchants group, told the board, “At the present time, I think it’s a bad time” to install meters. So much construction remains underway in the downtown area, he pointed out, and with the building of The Mark condominium complex getting underway, construction workers will be taking up many of the spaces in the Palm Avenue parking garage. Additionally, Soto noted, the city has allocated 40% of the spots in that garage for the adjacent Ovation Hotel for the Arts, which recently was completed on Palm Avenue.
Soto suggested the city extend its two-hour parking restriction downtown to 8 p.m., which would eliminate the problem of employees of the businesses from parking in spaces that should be used by customers.
Finally, he said, “if parking meters are an absolute must … why not meter the [lots at] the beaches?” Let the tourists pay for the city’s parking program, Soto told the board.