First three hours to be free
With only Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie voting against the proposal, the City of Sarasota tentatively will begin charging for parking in its Palm Avenue and State Street garages on Jan. 17, 2018.
The first three hours in each garage will be free, Parking Division General Manager Mark Lyons explained. After that period, a person would pay $3 for the first hour and $1 for each subsequent hour. However, the maximum charge for 24 hours would be $23, he said; the same amount would be charged of anyone who loses his or her ticket. The latter, he noted, “is a standard practice within the industry.”
Without cameras trained on all the vehicle license plates in a facility, he added, it would be impossible for staff to know whether a car has been in a garage for an hour or many hours.
Additionally, Commissioner Willie Shaw’s motion called for staff to come back to the board in six months with an update on how the program is working, based on data staff will be able to collect through use of new equipment.
Freeland Eddie reiterated the view she has expressed in past commission discussions: “I think we shouldn’t have to pay to park at all.”
Yet, she continued, “We have infrastructure that we have to pay for.” She suggested city staff was taking the wrong approach — that the city should charge for each hour and set a sliding scale, so the longer someone keeps a vehicle in a garage, the lower the fee per hour.
Otherwise, she voiced concern that drivers would not be inclined to leave their vehicles in the Sarasota garages long enough to generate sufficient revenue. When she asked Lyons to guess how many people keep vehicles in the garages longer than three hours, he replied that the number is “probably in the 20-percentile range.”
However, he continued, staff anticipates increased use of the garages, especially the one on Palm Avenue, in coming months, given all the new construction in downtown Sarasota. The State Street garage, he noted, is “become very active, as well.”
Lyons acknowledged that the city’s plan is “somewhat unusual for parking garages, because much of the traffic occurs within the first four or five hours.” In this case, however, he pointed out, “we don’t want to drive any parking customers out of the garages. We’d rather use [the rates] as an incentive to get them into the garages.”
Lyons also told the commissioners he has invested considerable time in reading and researching parking patterns, and what he has learned is that drivers are most likely to look for on-street spaces. “They’ll search and search and search and search.”
They will seek out surface lots as their second option, he added, before they will consider parking in a garage. Therefore, the goal with making the first three hours free in the city’s garages is to make that option more attractive to them and to increase turnover in the on-street spaces, Lyons told the commissioners.
Vice Mayor Liz Alpert disagreed with Freeland Eddie’s view. “I don’t think we want to [charge for every hour in the garages] without charging for parking on the street.”
“I’m not for charging on the street,” Commissioner Hagen Brody added. “Three hours is fine” for free parking in the garages, he said.
In response to a question from Brody and Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, Lyons explained that the city will maintain its permit program for employees of downtown businesses, charging $20 a month for them to park in the garages. Further, Lyons said, residents who live within 1,000 feet of either garage may purchase a permit for $100 a month to allow them to park overnight in those facilities.
The Palm garage figures also take into account the fact that guests at the adjacent Art Ovation Hotel will be using part of the spaces in that facility, according to an Oct. 15, 2013 agreement between the city and the hotel developer, Floridays Development Co.
Lyons previously has told commissioners that the hotel will use about 40% of the approximately 730 spaces in the garage. Those are expected to generate revenue of $139,200 for this fiscal year, according to figures Lyons provided the board this week.
The garage fees are based on usage for 301 days. Lyons pointed out that the city does not charge for parking on holidays or Sundays.
The balance sheet
The City Commission’s 4-1 vote in favor of the garage proposal included agreement to Lyons’ request to hire three more full-time employees to man the entrances, monitor use of the equipment and to collect and count the money.
As he had indicated in an earlier discussion, Lyons also confirmed that people will be able to pay their tickets at machines prior to exiting the garages, to facilitate faster departure.
Lyons told the board his staff’s expectation is that the parking program for the two garages will bring in an extra $390,987 a year. The expenses of the new employees will be $120,973, he added. Therefore, the implementation of the program should generate $270,014 in new annual revenue, he said.
The city’s parking program long has run a deficit, requiring subsidies from the city to balance the fund. Lyons noted that for the current fiscal year, the anticipated revenue is $1,198,668. The budgeted expenses for this fiscal year are $1,893,613, leaving the Parking Division with a deficit of $694,945. Those figures do not reflect the new garage revenue.
“I have general concerns about just the parking budget,” Commissioner Brody said. “It seems like we spend a lot of money to lose money on the parking program.” Still, he added, that was a discussion better left for a budget workshop.
“I would love for us to do a hybrid of what [other municipalities do in charging to park in garages],” Freeland Eddie said. That way, she continued, “we’re getting some revenue for everybody that parks [in the facilities]. … We’re going to be fighting ourselves with overhead and expenses and operations.”
“I think that the plan that we have put together is fairly simple,” Lyons told the commissioners. “I caution us from being too complicated in the startup.”
After the board sees the data generated for the first six months, Lyons and city Planning Director Steven Cover suggested the board could offer direction for modifications to the program.