EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 24, 2013

Editorial: Paid parking bonanza falls a little short

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Haverhill officials, led by Mayor James Fiorentini, over the past several years sold residents a bill of goods. Now, it is time for the less pleasant half of the bait and switch.

The installation of paid parking kiosks downtown, the mayor said, would open up parking spaces for business and rake in a handsome payment to the city in the process. The hours for paid parking would be limited and the fees would be a modest 50 cents per hour, so as to encourage the patronage of downtown businesses but discourage all-day parking by commuters. A private company would handle the installation and management of the metering system — all but enforcement, to ensure a soft touch and keep Haverhill’s downtown friendly.

The contract with SP Plus Municipal Services looked great. Haverhill would get an up-front payment of $200,000. The city estimated the company’s expenses would be about $200,000 per year, meaning paid parking would have to generate more than $400,000 before the company begins making a profit in any given year.

Revenue between $400,000 and $625,000 would go to the company, not including a $20,000 management fee the city pays the company annually. Revenue above $625,000 in any given year would be split between the city and the company, with the city receiving a 90 percent share.

Everyone would be happy — shoppers, diners, businesses, residents and especially city officials, whose palms were already itching at the prospect of all that new revenue.

Who could have guessed it was all too good to be true?

Less than six months since the start of the paid parking regime and already there are signs of trouble. Revenues are not coming in at the projected rate and if Haverhill does not hit the required benchmarks, the up-front payment will be reduced next year.

Haverhill received an up-front payment from SP Plus Municipal Services based on the paid program generating $250,000 by the end of this month and $400,000 by the end of its first year. Collections so far, however, stand at $175,000 and are projected to only reach $275,000 by the end of the first year, according to the city’s paid parking consultant Jason Schreiber of Nelson/Nygaard.

So Schreiber is recommending some changes to the system.

Schreiber said Haverhill could still hit the revenue targets if it raises the parking fee from 50 cents an hour to 75 cents or $1 an hour. He also recommends starting the paid program earlier — at 10 a.m. rather than 3 p.m. — on the downtown’s main streets.

Drivers pay 50 cents per hour to park in city lots and the Merrimack Street garage or they can purchase $15-per-month permits reserved for people who live or work downtown.

Schreiber recommended raising the cost of lot and garage permits to $30 per month or even $50 per month for the busy Wingate Street lot. He also suggested extending paid parking to 9 p.m. and making street parking and nighttime more expensive that lot parking and daytime parking.

So what was a paid evening parking program threatens to become an all-day affair — and a more expensive one at that.

Mayor Fiorentini is considering the recommendations and will propose changes at a future City Council meeting.

Schreiber said the paid parking program is meeting its goal of opening up spaces in front of downtown businesses. That’s because the city’s focus has been on access, not money, he said.

If that’s truly the case, why the need for a fee increase? Why not just accept the lower revenue projections and be happy with the improved access?

That won’t happen. Whenever someone says: “It’s not about the money,” it usually is about the money.

So Haverhill’s downtown shoppers should prepare to pay more for the privilege.

And Haverhill officials need to tread carefully lest they have far more open parking spaces downtown than they ever wanted.