“We hear you.”
Park Harrisburg made that its takeaway during Tuesday night’s annual meeting of the Parking Advisory Board.
It heard the public’s complaints and might be willing to make some adjustments in how it operates. Maybe. Possibly.
Since taking over the city’s parking system a year ago, Park Harrisburg officials have been largely invisible to both the public and the press. With the exception of this once-a-year gathering, the system’s face has been its yellow-jacketed foot soldiers, whose job is to dole out tickets, take payment and shield higher-ups from the wrath of the parking public.
So, in the meeting room of the Crowne Plaza, people got a rare glimpse of the folks who actually run Harrisburg’s parking system. It was not an impressive showing.
Several Park Harrisburg people spoke, as briefly and quietly as possible, so softly that an audience member had to ask them to please speak up. They gave a quick overview of last year’s mediocre financial results–blamed mostly on lingering bad weather and a slow rollout–and said they hoped to do better this year.
From the start, Park Harrisburg struck a defensive tone. Responding, for instance, to recent news reports, officials came armed with statistics about the rate of erroneous tickets. Of 60,000 parkers in January, 5,358 tickets were written, with only 143 dismissed due to error, mostly because of a modem problem, they said.
The most substantial commentary may have come from John Gass, director of parking system manager Trimont, who related a story about how a business owner had thanked him because the new system had freed up parking spots near his restaurant.
The entire summary took maybe 45 minutes.
This is what I heard: Don’t expect much. Park Harrisburg seemed willing to make some tweaks, but, for the most part, the system is set in stone, the result of a complicated agreement between the city, the state, the Parking Authority, bond insurer AGM, the city’s creditors and the system operator. It simply would be too difficult to change, especially if revenue projections would fall as a result.
As Steve Goldfield, the state receiver’s financial advisor, said that night: Without the parking deal, the city would be sunk, as about 40 percent of its annual budget would go to pay debt service.
Ultimately, that’s how we arrived at this place on that night. In the unusual, complex financial recovery plan, the receiver and his team had tried to squeeze every dime out of the system. Parking was a way to “democratize” the debt payback, to have non-residents contribute to the solution of decades of overspending by the city government, said Goldfield.
Perhaps most people have already adjusted to this reality. Entering the Crowne Plaza, I expected torches and pitchforks, based upon what folks have said to me, as well as the relentless negative press that the issue has received. What I witnessed, though, was pretty mild stuff–a half-filled room, a smattering of public complaints.
Just a handful of residents spoke during the public portion, mostly about aggressive enforcement on street-cleaning days, and only one restaurant worker complained about reduced business. Councilman Ben Allatt pleaded for reduced rates, but he was the only elected official who spoke. City Council President Wanda Williams, who sits on the advisory board, didn’t say a word, nor did Mayor Eric Papenfuse, who was in the audience.
Several public complaints were very specific and unique: a pastor wanted exceptions for funeral parking; a SciTech parent wanted free parking while visiting the downtown school during the day; a guy tried to pay his ticket in nickels and pennies, but was turned away.
The whole thing lasted less than 90 minutes, concluding with a brief statement by Gass that he heard the complaints and hopes to make improvements to the system. Specifically, Park Harrisburg would study reducing parking rates in the River Street Garage during lunchtime, happy hour and Saturdays, though no promises were made.*
Afterwards, I exited the hotel into the frigid February air. My wife picked me up out front, and we drove down 2nd Street to the Federal Taphouse for a bite to eat. Leaving the car, I instinctively went over to the parking meter.
“It’s 7:30,” she said, motioning me towards the front door, as enforcement had ended for the day.
“Oh, right,” I said, laughing that I had made such a mistake immediately after leaving a meeting about parking.
Then I thought: Well, those Park Harrisburg guys were right about one thing. There was a spot right in front of the restaurant.
*Update: City officials yesterday met with Park Harrisburg to review several “revenue-neutral” proposals, which might include reducing rates from 5 to 7 p.m.