HAVERHILL — It's one positive thing that happened during the pandemic: free parking downtown.
But that break is almost over, and when paid parking resumes in the city center — perhaps as early as January — it will cost more to park there than it did before the health crisis.
The downtown parking fee will increase from 50 cents to $1 per hour, a change approved this week by the City Council.
City officials said the increase, the first since paid parking was created in August 2012, is needed so Haverhill can pay for management of the parking program, upgrading malfunctioning kiosks that one councilor called "almost an embarrassment," and improvements to city parking lots.
Mayor James Fiorentini suspended paid parking downtown in April because of the coronavirus crisis.
Fiorentini is seeking other changes to the program, including making paid parking hours consistent in lots and on-street spaces, adding paid parking on Saturdays, and increasing the cost of monthly parking permits. He asked at this week's council meeting, however, to postpone discussion of those requests to next week so Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O'Brien could participate. She was absent from this week's meeting.
John Burke, Haverhill's parking consultant, said the fee of 50 cents per hour is too low to pay the program's costs. He said the increase to $1 per hour will help pay for proper management of the program and replacing equipment.
The mayor said it's been eight years since the hourly fee increased and that parking program costs have risen over that time.
Public Works Director Michael Stankovich said the increase will support improvements to the program, including new signs that show changes in the hours of paid parking, resurfacing and restriping municipal parking lots, replacing aging kiosks and improved lighting.
Councilor William Macek, a member of the downtown parking commission which recommended changes to the program, said the consultant was "right on the money" with his recommendations.
"The increase in fees and revisions in times will help the city do a much better job at making downtown parking work for users and downtown merchants," Macek said. "I'm confident all of these proposals come together like hand in glove in our effort to have a quality downtown parking system."
Also supporting the fee increase, Councilor Thomas Sullivan said the city has fallen behind in technology and equipment, and that parking signage is poor.
"Fifty cents doesn't cut it ... a dollar is not unreasonable," he said of the increase in the hourly parking rate. "Many other communities charge a lot more than a dollar an hour to park on the streets. We're still on the lower end and if we don't do it now (increase the rate) we're never going to do it, and the situation downtown will continue to deteriorate in terms of parking (due to a lack of money to run the program)."
Council President Melinda Barrett said it can be frustrating to encounter a broken kiosk when trying to pay for a parking space. Councilor John Michitson said the current parking kiosks are "almost an embarrassment" because they often fail to work properly.
In response to Councilor Tim Jordan asking when the fee increase will go into effect, Fiorentini said it will happen once paid parking resumes. He estimated that would be Jan. 4.
"I want to give us about 30 days to advertise to people that they will have to start paying again," Fiorentini said, "and I want to give free parking over the holidays."
Michitson asked the mayor to delay resuming paid parking until "after the hump of COVID." He also said the next month or two could be "pretty rough."
Fiorentini said he will consider altering his plan for resuming the program in January, however, he noted that the old problem of people parking in the same spot all day and restaurant customers not being able to find parking has returned, prompting stepped-up enforcement.
"I want to point out that at a dollar an hour, we are still the cheapest in the state," he said.
Councilors Colin LePage, Sullivan, Michitson, Jordan, Macek and Barrett supported the fee increase, while councilors Joseph Bevilacqua and Michael McGonagle abstained because of conflicts of interest. Bevilacqua is on the board of directors for Haverhill Bank on Merrimack Street and McGonagle operates a business on Merrimack Street.
The council also approved changes to a parking map to include two municipal lots that have been created near developer Sal Lupoli's new Heights of Haverhill building on Merrimack Street. The changes will allow for the installation of parking signs and the marking of spaces, officials said.
The council agreed to wait until next week to consider several other proposed changes to the parking program. They include changing paid parking hours on streets and in lots to 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays for more consistency. Currently on-street paid parking is from 3 to 8 p.m. on Washington Street, and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in downtown city lots.
The mayor is also seeking to standardize parking signs throughout the downtown; issue virtual parking permits instead of paper hangtags for permit parking; have drivers pay by license plate number instead of space numbers; and increase the monthly price of a parking permit by $5, from $20 to $25.
Fiorentini wants to ban employees of downtown businesses from parking in the Wingate Street lot, which officials say is nearly full every day. The idea is to open those spaces to people doing business downtown.
Stankovich said the city will urge downtown employees to park for free in the Locke Street lot next to Butch's Uptown restaurant, and use free on-street parking in three locations — Washington Avenue near the downtown train station, on Orchard and Walnut streets, and on sections of Locust Street.