TAMPA — On paper, Tampa’s parking department is a stand-alone, self-financing utility in the same vein as the water, sewer and solid waste departments. The city charter demands it.
But in reality, the parking division is like a grown man living in his parents’ basement: Sure, he makes money, but not enough to live on his own. It takes help from the folks upstairs to keep him afloat.
That has been the story of the city’s parking system for years. The network of multistory garages and on-street spaces consistently spends more than it takes in, forcing the city to make up the difference from the daily operations budget.
That pattern continues in 2015. Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s proposed budget includes nearly $1.2 million in subsidies for the parking system — $700,000 to upgrade elevators in the Fort Brooke garage and the rest to cover operating losses.
In addition, the mayor has forced the department to empty its reserves to reduce the load on the city’s general fund. By the end of the 2015 budget year, the parking system could have less than $17,000 in its reserves.
Because the parking division doesn’t issue its own debt the way the city’s other utilities do, it’s not required to have a reserve fund. At that point, any money put in reserves is that much the city has to replace from general revenue.
“Because we’re subsidizing them, we’re not looking to have a lot sitting in reserves,” said Sonya Little, the city’s finance director.
Parking director Jim Corbett said the lack of a cushion leaves the department vulnerable and more dependent on the general fund if a problem arises.
“It would take one catastrophe and we’d be even more dependent on the general fund,” he said.
Buckhorn has spent three years trying to reduce the parking division’s drag on the budget. Soon after taking office in 2011, he refinanced millions in outstanding parking debt, consolidating it with other city debt and taking it off the division’s books.
Rather than make payments to creditors, the division pays the general fund — $3.2 million in 2015 — as its contribution to the debt covered by the city’s utilities services tax. Refinancing cut the annual payment by more than half.
Corbett said his department has done what it can to reduce expenses. In 2010, it consolidated its finance and technology staff with City Hall-based counterparts. It has replaced attendants with automated fee collections at garages except at the busiest times.
“I think we’re about as sustainable as we can be right now,” Corbett said. “We’re doing things from the service standpoint that’s as efficient as we can be.”
Corbett said that, historically, the parking division was able to at least break even financially. Things changed when the city sold its lucrative Davis Islands garage to Tampa General Hospital in 2006. The garage generated $4.8 million a year.
The city also sold a parking lot to the University of South Florida in 2010. It was demolished to create the university’s downtown Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation. The proceeds from that sale went to the parking division’s debt.
An internal audit in 2010 recommended the city cure the parking division’s problems by, among other things, raising rates to match the private sector, cutting free and subsidized parking for city workers, and eliminating free parking before 10 p.m. in Ybor City’s surface lots.
Some of those suggestions have been adopted, such as ending Ybor City’s free parking, except on Saturdays. Other recommendations, such as dropping the subsidy for city workers, remain unchanged, Corbett said.
The question of raising parking rates is a perennial and controversial one. Corbett deferred to Buckhorn when asked about it. Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen said doing so would leave the city at a disadvantage in competing with private lots.
“We really are in a market-driven situation,” he said.
Councilwoman Lisa Montelione disagrees. Raising parking rates won’t deter people from using the city’s garages, she said.
“It doesn’t have to be a huge increase. It could be a quarter. It could be 50 cents,” she said. “Parking is a convenience, and often in life you pay for convenience.”
Corbett and Cohen see future economic growth pushing more users into the city’s garages and lots. Ybor City, for example, has a growing population of office workers, raising demand for parking there, Cohen said.
“Eventually, we will have some of these structures paid off and begin to make money again,” Cohen said.