DUNEDIN — At 1 a.m. Wednesday, after seven hours of public input and back-and-forth discussion on the dais, the City Commission failed to agree on a path forward for the downtown paid parking trial program that was scheduled to expire Tuesday.
Instead, they kicked the decision until Dec. 19, agreeing to make parking free for a period this month while they decide on next steps.
"We’re no further ahead tonight than we were coming into this meeting," City Manager Jennifer Bramley said.
There was clear consensus, however, that 14 months of debate over paid parking had devolved into the city’s most contentious and divisive issue in decades. During the meeting, which drew an overflow crowd, a business owner said she was being boycotted over her stance on the matter, a restaurant server declared he would run for office because of the debacle, and residents questioned whether their elected officials were representing them.
"What is the price tag you would put on a city’s character and it’s reputation?" resident Mikell Herrick said. "I think that’s what it really boils down to."
Bramley’s staff recommended the city adopt paid parking permanently but offer free passes for residents, lift enforcement during daytime weekday hours, issue employee parking passes and simplify signs. Planning Director Greg Rice emphasized the city will need the roughly $275,800 that would come from this modified plan annually to fund beautification and infrastructure improvements in the downtown core because the Community Redevelopment Agency budget that would normally pay for those upgrades will be mostly consumed by funding a future parking garage.
Commissioner Heather Gracy made a motion to accept the staff’s plan, but it failed because commissioners John Tornga, Maureen Freaney and Deborah Kynes wanted changes in the plan.
Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski was the only official to suggest ending paid parking entirely while addressing parking issues with strategies previously recommended by consultants that were never implemented. Those ideas included free enforcement of two-hour limits and better use of city-owned parking areas.
"We’ve dropped the ball over time and didn’t implement what we should have when we should have," she said. "I think paid parking has divided this community long enough, I really do. … I think we should just rip the stuff out."
Bramley warned that city staff "is almost out of ideas" and has been consumed by parking strategy work for well over a year, preventing them from focusing on other initiatives and projects.
If the commission was unable to agree on a path forward, she said she would hire a parking expert who could review the history, analyze future needs and create a viable plan that has eluded staff and elected officials.
The process, she said, could take at least three months.
The city already has spent $65,639 on Walker Parking Consultants, which analyzed parking needs beginning in 2015. This year, officials paid $18,500 to Tim Haas & Associates, which recommended the city continue managed parking with a paid system, time restrictions or both.
And consultant Paul Lambert, who was paid $11,000 this year for his analysis, said in a workshop last month that while paid parking remains controversial nationwide, data doesn’t always show it negatively affecting sales. In Tuesday’s staff report, however, he stated "charges for vacant parking is a psychological barrier for customers" and recommended the city keep the paid system, lift enforcement during daytime hours and increase the $1.50 hourly charge by 50 cents every six months in high-use areas.
Bujalski said it was difficult to support a paid parking system when staff could not identify exactly how many spaces would be needed in years to come.
Rice said there are too many variables to provide an estimate because of the unknown impact of changes in property ownership where lots would be located, the development of driverless cars, the use of ridesharing and alternative transportation.
Kynes also emphasized the difficulty in creating a plan before seeing how a 195-space parking garage scheduled to open next month on Douglas Avenue impacts the dynamic.
The city lease payment on the privately owned garage will be funded by the CRA, but the $102,500 maintenance payments cannot be paid for with CRA or Penny for Pinellas money. Staff pointed to parking revenues as a way to fill this hole.
"We have made this problem ourselves, we have got to solve the problem ourselves," Gracy said, adding the city has just recently gone to the county for $41.7 million in bed tax funding to upgrade Toronto Blue Jays facilities and cannot continue to lean on outside sources.
Although the Dunedin Board of Finance and the Chamber of Commerce supported the staff’s modification plan as a reasonable compromise, residents who have emailed, called and showed up in droves with their opposition said the answer should be clear.
"It doesn’t matter if you’re for paid parking or against paid parking, if it’s financially viable or it’s not," said resident Gerry Diana. "You have to do the will of the people, and the will of the people states we do not want paid parking in the city of Dunedin."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.