Playing The Slots
Carmel city officials are betting that paid parking will turn the budget from red to black.
Thursday, June 24, 1999
Faced with a resident population unwilling to pony up needed tax dollars, Carmel Mayor Ken White may turn to you, your family and everyone else who visits the city to bridge Carmel''s budget gap.
Strapped for cash, the city of Carmel is studying the possibility of charging on-street parking fees in its upscale shopping districts. City officials believe the fees will net some $1 million per year for the city and will free up parking on prime shopping streets. Their only real concern is how all those decidedly anti-quaint parking devices will look sprouting from the village''s root-wracked sidewalks.
Whether Carmel businesses and residents will go along with such a plan, however, is an open question. It''s not so much an issue of whether or not parking fees will discourage shoppers from coming to Carmel, it''s an image thing.
On-street parking fees would require some sort of fee-collection machines that would mar Carmel''s "pristine" look, says Csaba Ajan, Carmel restaurant owner and president of the Carmel Business Association. "The uniqueness of Carmel is that it is devoid of ugly mechanisms of big cities," he says.
According to White, who chairs the Parking 2000 Committee, the idea of parking meters has already been rejected because they would clutter the city''s tree-lined sidewalks. There was a "general feeling that meters are not appropriate for Carmel, either aesthetically or psychologically," White says.
Instead, the committee has begun working with the Schlumberger Company to study a system using European-style "pay and display" machines. Pay-and-display machines, White says, could be located every one to two blocks throughout Carmel''s commercial district and would allow visitors to purchase tickets for up to several hours of time. Tickets would be displayed on car dashboards.
But while this system has clear advantages--like not requiring shoppers to either look at or feed meters every two or so hours--pay and display can be harder for day-trippers to figure out. Accordingly, the committee has been studying the public education campaigns that other cities, such as New York City, have used to help visitors decipher the system.
White says day-trippers--who drive into Carmel from neighboring cities, park, shop and eat but don''t spend the night in one of the city''s many inns or hotels--are the target of Carmel''s parking initiative. "They''re not shouldering their share of running the city," he says.
It may be hard to believe affluent Carmel has budget woes. But City Administrator Jere Kersnar says the city has "lost purchasing power." Expenditures are growing, but revenues are flattening out.
Kersnar says more than two-thirds of the city budget already comes from visitors--some 40 percent of the budget comes from transient occupancy taxes paid by hotel guests and almost 20 percent from sales tax. But both of these revenue sources are at a plateau, Kersnar says. And since the passage of Proposition 13, property tax revenues can no longer be counted on to fill city coffers.
Carmel''s budget shortfall is largely attributable to special projects such as upgrading the Sunset Center, the fire department and the Forest Theater. While these sorts of capital improvements seem ripe for tax initiatives, Kersnar says City Council members just don''t see this as a viable option. Such initiatives would require two-thirds support from voters who, in 1997, voted down a tax initiative for improved ambulance services. "Some 20 percent of voters vote on principle against any tax," Kersnar says.
Day-trippers, it seems, are the easiest target for increasing revenues. But Ajan doesn''t agree that the easiest target is necessarily the best. Even a pay-and-display system is unacceptable to Ajan.
"Pay-and-display machines are significantly bigger than parking meters and also require prominent signage [for visitors] just to understand how to use the system," Ajan says.
The Carmel Business Association will take an official stand on fee-based parking only after the parking committee has made a recommendation to the City Council. But, Ajan asserts, the idea of dotting Camel''s streets with parking fee collection machines isn''t of concern just to the business community.
"Both business people and citizens see eye to eye on this," he says. To have fashionable Ocean Avenue spotted with signs, he says, would be pretty "hard to swallow."
Neither is Ajan persuaded that parking is the most direct route to raising revenue because of the significant costs involved in installing, running, and enforcing a parking-fee system.
He believes the city should focus instead on increasing tourism to fill hotels, thereby increasing both transient occupancy and sales tax revenues. Reversing Carmel''s prohibition on short-term private home rentals would also help increase tourism dollars, he says, although Carmel has fought a court battle to maintain this prohibition.
For the time being, the city government has yet to be convinced parking fees aren''t a good means of bridging the budget gap. The parking committee is still waiting on the results of Schlumberger''s feasibility study, so all estimates are very preliminary. But if city officials'' $1 million estimate is correct, parking would provide for about 10 percent of the city''s current $9.6 million budget.
Judged by the city of Monterey''s experience, this estimate may not be too far off. According to Carl Anderson, Monterey''s director of public facilities, the city''s 1,300 meters each bring in an average $760--almost $1 million annually.
Moreover, White and other city officials believe parking fees will actually free up parking in Carmel. Workers rather than visitors currently fill an estimated one-third or more of the commercial district''s prime parking spots. Officials believe a fee system that charges more for parking on the most heavily visited streets would encourage these workers to park elsewhere.
White emphasizes the parking committee is still only "looking at the concept" of parking fees; there is no timeline for making a recommendation to the City Council, let alone actually installing fee collection devices. But he also emphasizes the need for extra cash.
"We''re looking at every possibility" for raising money, he says. "The need for a new revenue source is apparent if we''re going to keep our city infrastructure up-to-date."