By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Downtown’s paid parking program took in $367,000 in the fiscal year that ended last week — a respectable haul for sure, but short of the $400,000 the city hoped to reach.
Haverhill’s contract with the private company running the program, SP Plus Municipal Services, required the city to hit the benchmark to keep all of a second $100,000 payment from the firm. The city received the first $100,000 up front.
As a result, the city had to return the difference — about $33,000, Mayor James Fiorentini said.
According to a financial analysis, $152,000 was tallied from meter payments and $215,000 from the sale of permits in fiscal 2013, which ended June 30. Cash receipts from meters slightly outpaced credit cards $84,000 to $68,000, the financial report showed.
Parking on downtown’s major roads is 50 cents per hour, Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., or $15 per month for a permit to park in public lots surrounding the Washington Street train station. Permits are reserved for people who live or work downtown.
The new financial review shows meter revenue from the program has steadily increased from $12,000 in the first month last August to $17,000 in May.
The mayor and several city councilors said the upward trend is evidence the program has been successful.
“This is a very good sign the parking plan, overall, is working,” Fiorentini said, noting that meter receipts rose by 43 percent from August 2013 to May 2014.
Councilor William Ryan, who opposed paid parking at first, also seems to have warmed to it.
“I’m encouraged by the numbers,” Ryan said of the financial report. “The (participation) numbers have consistently gone up and it shows people are getting used to it. I’m downtown every day and it’s much easier to find a parking spot now. People do their business and move on. We have gotten rid of the all-day parkers, which was the goal. The report is evidence the plan is working and we have another revenue stream as a bonus.”
Six months ago, the city’s paid parking consultant, Jason Schreiber of Nelson/Nygaard, recommended increasing parking fees and possibly the hours of the program to spur more revenue. He suggested increasing the hourly rate to 75 cents or $1 and hiking the price of permits to $30 or $50 per month.
In an interview last week, Fiorentini said he will wait until the end of the month, when the program will have been in place for a full year, before considering any changes to fees or hours. If changes are made, he said he’s more likely to support tweaking the hours than raising fees.
“Overall, I am happy with the program, but do feel that it needs to be simplified,” the mayor said. “I continue to get complaints that people do not know when or what they need to pay and that signage needs to be improved.”
Public Works Director Michael Stankovich, the city’s paid parking pointman, said the primary goal of the program is to keep 15 spaces out of every 100 open at all times for business customers, restaurant patrons and other visitors.
“That has happened,” Stankovich said. “We fell a little short on revenue, but that’s a secondary issue.”
Fiorentini said he believes most people are happy with the program’s impact on the Washington Street end of downtown, especially restaurant owners on that end. But he said opinions are mixed on the Merrimack Street end.
“Employees probably like it (paid parking) the least,” the mayor said, referring to people who work downtown, especially on or near Merrimack Street.
Fiorentini said the city will do a formal survey in August or September, asking business owners and visitors for their feedback.
“The businesses say customers don’t mind paying, but they want it simpler,” he said. “I agree and we are working on that. But most of the opponents of paid parking are now on board with it.”
The mayor said the city has spent most of its parking revenue to install signs, improve and repair parking lots and sidewalks, and plant trees and flowers. Some of the money has also been used to hire a part-time person to maintain the Merrimack Street garage and to clean and sweep parking lots, he said.
Councilors said they have noticed the area, especially the Merrimack Street garage, has been much cleaner in recent months.
“The Merrimack Street garage is as clean as I’ve ever seen it,” said Councilor Michael McGonagle, who runs a staffing company on Merrimack Street.
Councilor Tom Sullivan also works downtown and owns a parking permit.
“There’s always open spaces in the garage and on the street now,” Sullivan said. “And the garage is as clean as it’s ever been.”
The paid program was designed to dissuade long-term parking by people such as commuters who ride the train and those who live and work downtown from parking for hours at a time in the heart of the business district. Instead, the city wants them to park on peripheral roadways such as Bailey Boulevard where parking is free.