Mostly on split votes, City Commission authorizes multiple changes in parking program, including charging for 80 spaces near Lido Beach and charging for parking at Centennial Park Boat Ramp

Arroyo argues against most of recommendations

The Sarasota City Commission listens to public comments on March 4, with Commissioner Erik Arroyo participating via virtual meeting technology (upper left corner). News Leader image

It took the better part of two hours and 40 minutes on March 4, but the members of the Sarasota City Commission ended up approving most of the 11 changes that the new general manager of the city’s Parking Division had recommended.

Among those were adding metered parking at 80 spaces near Lido Beach, reducing the free use of the city’s two downtown parking garages from two hours to one, and charging people to park at the Centennial Park Boat Ramp.

Altogether, the 11 proposals had been anticipated to increase the Parking Division’s annual revenue by $2,221,386, a city chart noted. City Manager Marlon Brown pointed out that the funds not needed to balance the Parking Division budget have to be used to benefit downtown residents and businesses. For example, he said, they could help pay for the operations of the free Bay Runner trolley.

“I think this is a very reasonable, well-thought-out list of suggested actions to take,” Mayor Liz Alpert said of the staff recommendations. “I also see it as a user fee,” she added. “Parking is not free.”

Yet, Commissioner Erik Arroyo maintained, “We shouldn’t just increase things just because we can.” He called the $2.2 million “extra taxes on our residents.”

“At some point,” Arroyo said, “we should really look at the [Parking Division budget] numbers for last year.” The 2023-24 fiscal year budget documents he had reviewed, he continued, did not show the revenue total. “Only one of these initiatives — only one of these — … would pretty much cover any shortfalls … that we anticipate.”

Conversely, Commissioner Debbie Trice pointed out that one responsibility of the commission “is to balance the needs of the city at large” with the needs of residents, visitors and businesses. She added that she appreciated the efforts that new Parking Division General Manager Broxton Harvey had made to educate the board members about the importance of turnover at parking spaces, to facilitate patronage of businesses.

It is not helpful to businesses, Trice continued, if, for example, someone parks in a downtown space so that person can visit a friend for about six hours in a downtown condominium.

Most of the votes on the measures were split. Several of the modifications approved this week will have to come back to the board members in the form of revised ordinances, staff noted.

The following are the recommendations that won approval:

  • Meters will be added to 80 — about 20% — of the parking spaces along Ben Franklin Drive, which is the primary access to Lido Key Beach. Even with that change, Harvey noted, 368 spaces will remain free for public use. The fee for the metered spaces will be $1 per hour. That change is expected to generate $374,400 per year for the city.
This aerial map shows a portion of Ben Franklin Drive near Lido Key Beach. Image from Google Maps

When Commissioner Kyle Battie asked about comments that Harvey had received about that proposal, Harvey replied, “I haven’t had too many complaints regarding it.” In fact, Harvey added, he had received more support for it “than negative feedback.”

Even the Lido Key Residents Association is in favor of the use of the meters, Harvey noted.

City staff has received a lot of complaints about people essentially camping overnight in their vehicles parked along Ben Franklin Drive, he told the commissioners.

Mayor Alpert added that people had told her that people leave their vehicles in the spaces “for days at a time.”

That recommendation won approval on a 3-2 vote, with Arroyo and Vice Mayor Jen Ahern-Koch both in the minority.

  • The “grace period” for parking for free in the city garages will drop from two hours to one. That modification is anticipated to bring in an additional $134,646 per year.

Arroyo pointed out that the board members should be providing incentives for people to park in the garages, instead of on the streets. Therefore, he opposed that change, as well.

Ahearn-Koch agreed about the need to entice people to use the garages, which “cost a lot of money to build”; yet, the facilities, she said, often are under-utilized.

Trice made the motion to reduce the grace period, and Battie seconded it. Alpert joined them in approving the change.

  • Persons wishing to park cars at the Centennial Boat Ramp will pay $5, whereas those driving vehicles with boat trailers will pay $10. Together, those fees are expected to add up to $187,200 a year. Harvey told the commissioners that data showed that approximately 70% of the vehicles that park at the boat ramp are used for commercial purposes.

Moreover, City Manager Brown pointed out that if individuals with cars wish to avoid paying the fee at the boat ramp, they can park for free in one of the 800 spaces at the nearby Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and then walk to Centennial Park.

This is a view of the boat ramps at Centennial Park. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Nonetheless, Ahearn-Koch and Arroyo both objected to forcing people to pay to park at the boat ramp. Ahearn-Koch suggested the potential of a decal program for city residents, through which they would pay for an annual sticker that would enable them to park at the boat ramp for free.

Alpert responded that people with the decals could end up moving out of the city. “You have to be able to keep track of that,” Alpert said, “and it’s not easy.” City staff would have to be tasked with dealing with such a process, Alpert added.

Ahearn-Koch made a motion to continue that item, and Arroyo ended up seconding it. The goal, they agreed, would be to allow staff time to come up with other suggestions.

That motion failed 2-3.

Then Arroyo made a motion to deny the fees at the boat ramp. “The water belongs to everyone,” he pointed out. “It is one of the big attractors to moving here … We need to protect not only our waterways, but also our access to our waterways.”

On the other side of the issue, Alpert stressed, “We’re talking about people who own boats. That isn’t the general public. That is someone who can own a boat.” People using the spaces should have to pay for them, Alpert added. “I think $5 for a whole day or $10 for a whole day is an extremely reasonable cost.”

However, Arroyo’s motion passed 3-2, with Battie joining Arroyo and Ahearn-Koch in favor of it.

Later, Battie said he wished to change his vote, explaining that he had spoken with city Planning Director Steven Cover, as well as Harvey, during the lunch break. They had pointed out to him, Battie said, that Sarasota is one of the few municipalities, if not the only one, that does not charge persons to use boat ramps. Moreover, Battie continued, many of those who park at the boat ramp come from outside the city.
Battie made a new motion to charge the fees, as proposed. Ahearn-Koch and Arroyo voted “No,” so the motion passed 3-2.

  • Entry to the city’s three parking garages will no longer necessitate stopping at gates. The garages are on Palm Avenue and Second Street in downtown Sarasota and on St. Armands. The goal with that plan is to make ingress and egress faster, Harvey pointed out. That change is expected to reduce the city’s expenses by $75,000, a chart in the agenda packet showed.

The commissioners voted unanimously to accept that recommendation.

  • Only credit cards will be allowed for payments to use the city’s on-street metered parking spaces. Harvey pointed out that data show that only 1% of the users pay with coins. The two employees who have been collecting the coins will be assigned other responsibilities in the Parking Division, he added.

Trice complained that it was unfair for members of the public to have to pay a credit card fee on top of the city charge for using a metered parking space. However, Harvey explained that the city absorbs the credit card fees, though the ParkMobile app imposes a usage fee that the city does not cover.

That change won unanimous approval.

  • Persons wishing to use the city’s electric vehicle charging stations will pay $1 per hour, with a four-hour maximum imposed. That is anticipated to bring in $30,400 on an annual basis. Arroyo cast the solitary “No” vote once again.
  • Parking enforcement, for safety purposes only, will be implemented on Sundays. The goal of that change, Harvey explained, is to ensure that people are not blocking fire hydrants, for example, or illegally utilizing spaces designated for drivers who qualify for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) assistance. That measure is anticipated to bring in $15,600 per year.

Ahearn-Koch emphasized the safety aspect of that recommendation. Trice added, “I was thinking along the lines of parking in front of fire hydrants,” with the potential that enforcement could save lives by enabling firefighters to put out blazes faster. Arroyo was the only one to vote “No” on that proposal.

  • The waiver of fines for first-time offenders will end. That program was implemented as a temporary measure in 2019 when the latest city paid-parking program was established. The modification is anticipated to raise $65,000 on an annual basis.

That waiver was a measure to try to help people “understand and navigate the program,” Ahearn-Koch noted. “I don’t think this [change] is a big sore point.”

Arroyo countered that the city has many first-time visitors who might have difficulty with the meters. He cast the lone “No” vote on that proposal, too.

  • The fee to appeal a parking citation will rise from $7.50 to $25, to cover the expense of the Special Magistrates who conduct the sessions. Alpert noted that the city pays the Special Magistrates $125 an hour.

However, any individual who wins an appeal will be reimbursed both for the citation and the expense of contesting it, Harvey said. The change in the fee schedule is expected to generate $5,250 a year. Arroyo again cast the only “No” vote.

The ‘No’s prevail

Two of the proposals did not win sufficient board support.

  • Parking enforcement will not expand two hours in downtown Sarasota — from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. — as Harvey had proposed, in an effort to increase turnover of vehicles parked in front of businesses.
Sarasota Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. File Image

Ahearn-Koch stressed that with paid parking ending at 8 p.m., people often will stay longer at restaurants — and spend more money on those meals.

Yet Alpert pointed out that people can extend their use of paid spaces through the ParkMobile app, instead of having to rush back to their vehicles to pay more at the meters.

Ahearn-Koch made a motion to reject the recommendation, but it died for lack of a second. Then Trice made a motion to approve that proposal, and it failed on a 1-4 vote; she was the only board member to support the change, even though Alpert had seconded the motion.

  • Citation fees will not be increased by $10 for the downtown parking program. That step was anticipated to generate $425,860 in additional revenue, the chart said.

Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues that that recommendation “sends a strong message to the community, including the business community, that we are not as business-friendly as we would hope to be” — and not as friendly to residents as visitors as city leaders would like to be.

Parking General Manager Harvey pointed out that the City of Sarasota is charging less than what he called “the market rate” for citation fees in surrounding cities.

“I think this goes counterintuitive to what we told the community for so many years, which is we support businesses. We want you to come to Sarasota,” Arroyo responded.

The vote against increasing the fees was unanimous.

A smattering of public comments during the meeting

Three of the four members of the public who addressed the commissioners about the proposed changes expressed support for them.

Jose Fernandez noted that it would be fairer to make everyone pay for city services, instead of forcing taxpayers to shoulder all of the expenses for upkeep of city facilities and operating costs.

David Lough, president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, told the commissioners that he had met with both Cover, the Planning Department director, and Harvey to discuss the proposals. He commended Harvey for listening to the public and making adjustments in the recommendations accordingly.

On a personal note, Lough added that the recommendations “make pretty good common sense.” However, he suggested that if revenue from the modifications exceeds the Parking Division’s annual budget, the extra funds should be dedicated to public transportation initiatives.

Only attorney Dan Lobeck voiced opposition to almost all of the proposals, saying that it appears that city staff wants to make it harder for people to park on city streets, with the goal of encouraging people to walk, bike or ride public transportation.

The only idea that perhaps makes sense, Lobeck said, is the removal of the gates at the city garages.

The fourth speaker, Ron Kashden of Laurel Park, used his time to advocate for a change in city policy on what he noted was a minor point. “When you pay a parking ticket within 24 hours,” he noted, “you get a $5 discount.” However, the payment has to be made within City Hall. He suggested that those who pay tickets online within 24 hours also be made eligible for the $5 discount.

The UTC argument

This is a view of the Mall at University Town Center, as shown on its website in July 2029.

During the discussion, Commissioner Trice said, “One of the complaints that people have made is that downtown is going to lose business” to the Mall at University Town Center (UTC), located near the intersection of Cattlemen Road and University Parkway, if the new parking regulations go into effect.

Yet, Trice continued, a woman recently told her that the woman refused to go to UTC because “It’s too big.”

Trice then explained that she had worked with Google Maps to arrive at some data she wanted to share with her colleagues. First, she noted, “The distance from one end of the UTC building to the other is about 1,750 feet. … That’s the same as walking from Five Points down Main Street past Orange [Avenue] to the First Baptist Church. That’s not a short distance.”

Further, Trice said, “a fairly reasonable parking space” in the UTC lot is 400 feet from the entrance. From the Palm Avenue parking garage to Main Street is approximately 400 feet, she noted.

If the commissioners agreed to the parking changes, Trice said, initially, some people may start shopping at UTC. However, she predicted, they would come back downtown after dealing with the distances she had cited in regard to UTC.