April 14, 2010

The Politics of Parking: Revenue Enhancement Versus Turnover, the Cage Match

At the Ward 1 meeting, the room at the Northside Community Center was bright, cheery and not nearly filled to the capacity it is when needly neighborhood residents come out twice weekly to pick up food from the pantry located there. On AnnArbor.com, reporters David Jesse and Tina Reed continued on with what I consider some of the most important reporting being done locally. It’s a series titled: “Ann Arbor’s Hidden Poor.” Jesse and Reed have been reporting on the “hidden poor” in Ann Arbor intermittently for several months now. As a rule, their pieces don’t attract the number of comments say, a piece about the real estate woes of U of M coach Rich Rodriguez would, but that could be because people are simply at a loss for words when it comes to realizing that there are, yes, poor people struggling to feed their children, keep their homes, jobs and dignity in one of the most prosperous cities in Michigan. 

In the course of walking door-to-door over the past few days in the modest neighborhoods around Wines School, I saw empty houses and talked with residents who were struggling to pay their property taxes thanks to lost jobs. There was an AAPS teacher unsure whether she and her son would be in Ann Arbor next year thanks to cuts proposed in the upcoming AAPS budget. She pieces together a full-time salary from several part-time jobs. The modest neighborhood through which I walked is beloved by its residents, but the edges of the cohesion are beginning to fray.

According to Money Magazine, between 2000-2008, our city lost almost 9.25 percent of its total jobs. Unemployment rose from 7.4 percent in February of 2009, to 8.9 percent in February of 2010, according to labor force data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In February of 2007, there were 8,847 people unemployed in Ann Arbor. By February of 2010, that number rose to 16,202 individuals, again according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are thousands and thousands of Ann Arbor residents struggling with job loss, job retraining, family income declines, and holding on to their dignity by a thread. 

In the 2009 Money Magazine list of the top 100 places to live in the United States, Ann Arbor didn’t crack the top 100. Interestingly, Saline (68), Tecumseh (93) and Plymouth Township (28) did. Compared to the top 10 cities that Money Magazine selected as the best places to live, Ann Arbor fell short in several categories. The median price of a house in Ann Arbor was pegged at $206,707 and the average property tax bill totaled $4,641, a full $1,000 per year higher than in number 1, 2 & 3 cities on the list. Both property crime and personal crime rates were well above those reported, on average, in the top 100 cities that made the list. Ann Arbor has significantly fewer restaurants, bars, movie theaters, libraries than the average reported by the top 100 cities. This last statistic was the most interesting. The median age of a resident in Ann Arbor was listed as 29.2 years old. Within the top 10 towns singled out by the magazine as the best places to live, the media age of residents was between 34.9 years old and 40.9 years old. 

All this being said, and with the caveat that I am a data junkie in my day job (higher education policy and publishing), it’s good to remember that magazines publish features such as these to sell advertising, single copies and subscriptions. Issues such as this 2009 list of the top 100 best places to live is meant to appeal to those looking to relocate obviously (in truth, a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans than ever before, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau).

At an early-April meeting of the First Ward Democrats, I listened as First Ward Council member and Downtown Development Authority Board member Sandi Smith told neighbors in attendance that the proposed extension of downtown parking meter enforcement until 9 p.m. had nothing to do with revenue enhancement; it was all about increasing “turnover” at downtown parking meters. The politically damaging discussion initiated in December of 2009 based squarely on the idea that extending meter enforcement hours was necessary to generate more money, has morphed into a parking “plan” that revolves around seven “strategies” not a single one of which, by some miracle, mentions increasing revenues.

The first stated “strategy”: Downtown curbside public parking should be managed to create turnover at the most convenient, commercial locations so these spaces can be more easily used by a large pool of downtown users. 

Just in case you temporarily lost your ability to see through a blizzard of a snow job, increased turnover is meant to lead to enhanced revenue generation. Furthermore, City Council foisted off the dirty job of coming up with the brightly packaged gift of increased turnover to benefit Ann Arborites who want to park at a meter, on the Downtown Development Authority, a Board of political appointees, along with Sandi Smith and Mayor Hieftje (elected officials). Keep in mind that those same two elected officials, as members of the DDA, voted to approve the DDA’s new parking plan that calls for extending parking meter enforcement hours until 9 p.m. to increase “turnover.” On April 19th, Smith and Hieftje will walk into City Hall, and on behalf of the citizens who elected them, evaluate the merits of their own plan which they already approved over at the DDA. 

Feeling taken for a ride? You should, but for heaven’s sake don’t park in downtown Ann Arbor. Several of the “strategies” put forth in the DDA’s new report focused on “managing parking” revolve around making it ever so much easier to pay the parking tickets you’ll get. How about paying right at any of the snazzy $15,000 solar-powered parking kiosks where you put your money in to park? In 2008, the city of Baltimore bought 280 of the same kiosks, but paid $8,600 per kiosk. 

In December of 2009, Smith brought forth a resolution to City Council to keep the City from dealing parking on the DDA’s turf, as it were. City Administrator Roger Fraser had proposed installing meters in city neighborhoods in the First, Fifth and Third Wards to generate revenues. Smith’s resolution proposed extending downtown meter enforcement from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and giving the revenues from the old YMCA lot (Fifth and William) to the city. In exchange, the DDA’s monopolistic control over parking would remain intact. 

I wrote about the resolution proposed by Smith in December of 2009 here. On December 21, 2009 I wrote:

There are 1,750 curbside meters. Click here to see a map of DDA meter coverage that includes the Council/DDA fantasy projection (in green) of extending parking meters outside of the DDA area into our neighborhoods. In May of 2009, when Council members and Roger Fraser came up with the bright idea to proliferate parking meters, the Ann Arbor News editorialized that the move “smacked of desperation and poor public policy.” On January 3, 2010, AnnArbor.com editorialized that, “…expanding metered parking hours into the evening to bring in $380,000 a year (and even the DDA is skeptical that much money would be generated) is a risky proposition that could backfire. It could ultimately cost the city more in lost tax revenue if it pushes even just a few more merchants to shut down because of lost business.”

On April 19th, the DDA’s parking report (parking hikes dressed up as a favor to Ann Arbor residents tired of having low-paid restaurant workers, bartenders and diswashers take up the city’s 1,700 parking meters) will be presented to Council for its approval. The AnnArborChronicle.com reports that,

“At the DDA board’s joint transportation and operations committee meeting the previous Wednesday, March 31, 2010, committee members hashed through a number of issues related to the parking report. Those ranged from presentational issues to more substantive questions. Among the presentational issues was the question of whether to include parking rates in the body of the report or put them in an appendix. Putting actual numbers in the body of the report, suggested Newcombe Clark, would make the report immediately dated. Transportation committee chair John Mouat suggested putting the numbers in an appendix. Board chair John Splitt feared that if they did not include the numbers for rates, they would lose control of the discussion: ‘They’re real numbers, why not put them in there?’ The rates will be included in an appendix.”

Is it any wonder the parking rate information is being stashed in the index? Talk of parking rates and money, you see, is so far removed from the DDA’s report on parking so as to make the report appear innocuous, at worst. 

In talking with Main Street merchants, it’s pretty clear that they see this proposed meter enforcement extension as an attack on the viability of their businesses. Commenting on behalf of the Main Street Area Association (MSAA) Tony Lupo told the DDA Board that the MSAA had participated in the DDA’s process for soliciting feedback on the parking report. Lupo said that there was overwhelming opposition to extending the meter enforcement hours. However, he allowed that the MSAA understood the context under which extended hours were being considered—the city’s need for revenue.

On April 12th, city staff member Sue McCormick, the city’s public services area administrator, stood before Council and advised them to raise water and sewer rates because Ann Arbor’s $1.40 cost per 1,000 gallons of water and $4.02 cost per 1,000 gallons of wastewater placed the city at second lowest in the state, according to a report McCormick prepared. No matter that Ms. McCormick’s Water and Sewer Fund is already sitting on a multi-million dollar surplus, and that the current budget as proposed has multi-million dollar surpluses built into the allocations proposed for several departments under her direct control:

Stormwater Sewer System — $400,000 budgeted surplus (proposed)
Water Supply System — $2.52 million dollar budgeted surplus (proposed)
Sewage Disposal System — $2.9 million dollar budgeted surplus (proposed)

Our water rates are low, the logic goes among Ann Arbor city staff, so they need to be raised. Our parking fine structure hasn’t been revisited in five years, so went the logic of Roger Fraser and City Treasurer Matt Horning, in November of 2009, so we needed to “revisit” and raise the parking fines (after I questioned in an A2Politico entry the logic behind the need to “revisit” parking fines and the validity of the data in Fraser and Horning’s “study” presented to support their proposal, the idea was dropped). Now, parking “turnover” has suddenly become a problem, so we need to revisit the enforcement hours of metered parking. This kind of logic employed by city staff, and the DDA Board members, unchecked and unquestioned by City Council, simply leads to public policy decisions formulated and based on the supposition that the taxpayers exist to support city government above all else.

Some city has to have low parking fine rates and water charges, right? Evidently, according to our city staff, it sure as heck can’t be Ann Arbor. They need their accumulated and budgeted surpluses and additional revenue from parking.

The DDA’s sham report should be recognized for what it is: a power grab and snow job based on the purely anecdotal stories of DDA Board members like Smith who tell us because the mix of businesses as changed over the past 25 years from retail to restaurant, more blue collar workers are parking at the meters long-term for “free.” Purportedly, the idea behind extended enforcement hours is to move more people who are parking at meters long-term after 6 p.m. into the structures.

It won’t happen. Why?

Since Smith brings up parking meter use from 25 years ago (1984), I thought I might dig up a little data from the era. Data from a 1987 (Ann Arbor had 102,000 residents then) multi-day, observational study done by a University of Michigan researcher found that street occupancy hovered between 95-98 percent day and night. Furthermore, (and interestingly) the study concluded that metered parking was not impacted by the availability of off-street (garage) parking. The average stay was 42 minutes at a 2-hour meter. In 1987, the researcher concludes that:

“One of the major goals of on-street parking meters is to provide short-term parking at a short walking distance close to the final trip destination (i.e., for shopping, personal errand, etc.). As the length of stay becomes shorter, more drivers can utilize this premium limited space, which is so vital to bringing patrons to downtown. Tables 5 and 6 indicate that the average stay was of 41.5 minutes (standard diviation. Also, the median of 40.0 minutes was close in magnitude to the mean. Based on this measure, one has to conclude that the meters seem to do what they were designed for, to provide curb, short-term.” 

Translation: People will circle like vultures for on street parking even if there are 5,000,000 open spaces in the parking garages. It’s the animal instinct— flight, flight or circle for parking. Garage parking signifies a long-term commitment, like an engagement ring. People don’t use meters long-term. They park near their destination for short term periods. At least they did in 1987. Have 25 years, a different mix of businesses, and 10,000 more residents completely changed the parking behavior of people in A2?

It’s time to stop treating Ann Arbor residents like their cash cows, and accepting city staff/DDA proposed fee increases on the flawed logic that Ann Arbor simply can’t have lower charges for services, hourly parking, parking fines, and fees for services and facilities than other communities. Why can’t we? Evidently, because the City Administrator believes, and City Council supports the policy that the DDA, Sue McCormick and other city staff need not only money for operating expenses, but mad money budget surpluses—tens of millions of tax dollars stuffed into the mattresses that are the DDA, Fleet, Water & Sewer and Solid Waste Funds.

Oh, and can I please see a show of hands from those who have little trouble finding a place to park downtown at meters after 6 p.m., and who are tired of being treated like golden geese? 

Mine’s up. 

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