More hikes?

William Wellons of Keene puts coins into a meter in a Gilbo Avenue parking lot before going into work at a downtown restaurant in 2015, before the city's last parking price hike was put into effect in 2016. 

Higher metered parking rates, permit fees and fines could be in the Elm City’s near future.

At a workshop focused on downtown parking Tuesday night, Medard K. “Med” Kopczynski, Keene’s director of economic development initiatives and special projects, presented a report to city officials that examines data trends in regulated parking areas. The document, which was compiled by Kopczynski, Keene Police Chief Steven Russo and Planning Director Rhett Lamb, also provides recommendations, which would need to be approved by the City Council, for improving the city’s parking systems.

In long-term parking areas downtown, the report recommends raising meter rates from 30 cents per hour to 35 cents per hour, with an increase from 75 cents to 85 cents in the hourly rate in short-term parking spots. Permit fees would also see an increase of $5 per month in surface lots — from $43.34 to $48.34 — and about $15 in the lower level of the Wells Street parking garage — from $51.70 to $66.67 — according to Kopczynski’s presentation.

Rates last saw a hike in fiscal year 2016, according to Tuesday’s presentation. In November 2015, councilors voted 14-1 to approve a plan to increase the cost of an hour’s worth of parking by 10 cents or 25 cents, depending on the lot, and raised the fee to rent a space for three months by $15.

That decision followed concerns that the city’s parking fund, which draws revenue mostly from meter fees, parking space rentals and fines, would soon be depleted if rates were not raised. The fund is used to enforce regulations and maintain parking areas and facilities, according to city budget documents.

Councilors also opted at that same time to bring the city into compliance with state law, by raising the fine for parking in handicapped spots from $50 to $250, and violations for parking in a fire lane from $50 to $75. Other parking fines weren’t changed.

The last time city officials had raised parking rates before 2015 was in 2002.

Other recommendations that Kopczynski presented Tuesday include establishing employee and residential permit programs, continuing to implement smart meter and kiosk payment systems, and shifting regulated parking hours.

Daytime use of metered parking in the downtown area has decreased in recent years, Kopczynski said Tuesday, with average annual occupancy in both on- and off-street parking dropping about 10 percent between 2015 and 2017. The data also show that nearly all of the downtown regulated parking areas see higher occupancy at 7 p.m. than at 4:30 p.m.

Many downtown businesses also open their doors after 9 a.m., Kopczynski noted, which means that meters are not taking in much revenue early in the morning. The report suggests changing paid parking hours to 9 or 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 or 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Currently, meters and kiosks operate from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

The employee permit program would allow people who work downtown to purchase a permit, paid quarterly, and park in designated off-street, normally metered lots throughout the downtown area. Residential permits would be open to people living in downtown buildings without off-street parking that are within 200 feet of a municipal parking lot.

Those programs would create more efficient systems for serving downtown employees and residents, Kopczynski said, and would likely offer permits at different rates than the city’s current space rental program.

The report also includes a recommended increase of the city’s standard parking ticket fines, which now cost $5 initially and increase to $15 after 14 days and $35 after 28 days. Under the report’s recommendation, parking tickets would have an initial fine of $15, which would increase to $30 after 30 days without payment, and $60 after 60 days without payment. After 90 days, the city would enlist a collections agency to pursue payment.

In 2017, 2,535 tickets went unpaid, representing $105,707 in outstanding fines, according to Kopczynski.

Ward 5 Councilor Robert B. Sutherland suggested the council consider, instead, an initial fine of $10 for parking tickets, with an increase to $30 and then $60 for failure to pay.

“I just remember when I was poor, young and working restaurants and whatever else as a student and making ends meet, the last thing I could afford was a $15 ticket,” he said. “... I think that there are a lot of people in this community that that would really hurt.”

Kopczynski also presented an estimated timeline for implementing the recommendations. After hiring a parking operations manager, soliciting feedback from the community and receiving council approval to change necessary ordinances, the city would implement higher meter, kiosk and permit rates, as well as change operation hours, between July 2018 and January 2019.

Longer-term recommendations, set to be put in place between January 2019 and July 2019, include establishing permit programs for downtown residents and employees, evaluating on-street parking for potential overnight and residential permit opportunities and improving community outreach.

At-Large Councilor George S. Hansel noted that people who work downtown are often hit hardest by rate hikes and suggested rolling out an employee permit program should be a priority.

“I just think the rate increases will be a lot easier for the public to swallow with something in place for the employees,” Hansel said.

The next step is for the city to gather input from the community, City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon said. Ultimately, the City Council will decide whether to implement any of these recommendations, and a copy of the report will be publicly available on the city’s website soon, according to Kopczynski.

Meg McIntyre can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or mmcintyre@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MMcIntyreKS.