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Ocean City

Meters clear final hurdle as council rejects mayor’s compromise

(June 7, 2013) In an unusual reversal of roles this week, the City Council voted 5-to-2 against Mayor Rick Meehan’s recommendation for a compromise measure on paid parking, instead moving to implement the controversial metering ordinance in full.

The body also voted by the same margin to approve the 2013-2014 fiscal year budget, with parking – and the circumstances surrounding the decision – being one of more contentious issues.

Describing the addition of parking meters on a few select streets “one of the toughest discussions we’ve had,” Meehan distributed a memo to the council this week outlining a compromise scheme that imposed parking fees only on parts of the streets in question.

Under the proposed budget, the city would add Cale-brand meter machines to the ocean block of 146th and 49th Streets, the stretch of 131st Street between Coastal Highway and Sinepuxent Avenue and the west side of Philadelphia Avenue below the Route 50 Bridge.

Meters would also go into the municipal lots at City Hall and the 65th Street Public Safety Building, although these have raised less ire among residents.

On 146th Street, where owners of the Ocean Place condominium have pleaded that metering will unfairly disadvantage them for guest parking, Meehan proposed that only the 16 spaces created by the city’s renovation of the street three years ago be metered.

“That would leave the same number of spaces there for free parking that were there when the owners bought those units,” he contended.

Meehan also proposed that the nine spaces on 131st Street contiguous with the Crab Bag restaurant also not be metered, given the strenuous objection of Crab Bag owner Nolan Graves when it was announced that his business’ street had been tapped for paid parking.

On the west side of Philadelphia Avenue below North Division Street, Meehan recommended that meters be stayed from spaces abutting two residential properties who did not want them, in-keeping with the city’s policy of granting parking waivers to owner-occupied residences downtown.

But when asked if she would amend her approval motion to include Meehan’s reductions, Council Secretary Mary Knight said she would not. The motion went to vote, with Council members Brent Ashley and Margaret Pillas in objection.

Ashley reiterated his belief that the ill will created by additional paid parking would outweigh the meters’ earnings.

“The revenue you’re going to bring is going to be less than what you’re going to lose,” Ashley said. “It’s a false economy. Starting July 1, the state’s new gas tax goes into effect, which will add four cents to a gallon of gas. Also on July 1, the new toll increase for the bay bridge will take effect.”

“Adding more expense for the visitors at this time would seem to be counterproductive to the promotion of tourism.”

However, the plan’s proponents continued to maintain that it was a matter of fiscal necessity.

“The ways that government can make money are very limited,” Knight said. “We picked these areas [for paid parking] because it would affect the least number of people … if [free] parking is the only reason people come here, then shame on us.”

“We’re collecting five million less [in property tax revenue] than we did in 2009,” said Council President Lloyd Martin.

But Ashley still pressed that the city’s current fiscal difficulties are because of wage increases, which will amount close to $1 million this year and will rise roughly the same amount for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

Several officials continued to make the point, however, that meters would be beneficial by encouraging visitor turnover and preventing people from leaving cars in street spaces for long periods.

“When people are on vacation, their most important thing is their time. If putting meters in some spaces in some locations helps to create turnover and make parking available, they’re going to be happy it’s there,” Meehan said. “Sometimes you don’t mind paying for the time to do the things you want to do.”

“A lot of people have come to me while I’m working, asking if they could have meters in front of their buildings,” said Martin, who owns and operates a 7-Eleven store.

“Why don’t you just give us the names of these people who want them, and we’ll take them off 146th Street and put them there?” Pillas replied.

Councilman Joe Mitrecic said that the city had received letters from the Econo Lodge on 146th Street and JR’s Ribs on 131st Street requesting meters, to the contrary of their neighbors.

But the core of the dispute over the meters is why city officials were trying to convince residents and business owners of the benefits of paid parking after introducing the metering scheme instead of before.

“Bottom line is that I think we need a process … some type of study being done in an orderly way that won’t be shoved down people’s throats as some political ploy,” said Pete Cosby, attorney for the Crab Bag. “I’m not saying that’s what it is, but that’s the perception. I don’t think the political animosity is going to be worth it.”

As was pointed out during the meeting, Southern Living magazine recently printed a feature on Ocean City that mentioned 146th Street as an easy beach access point with no parking charge.

“You don’t get better advertising than that,” Cosby said. “It’s an intangible that makes this city what it is. Do we really need to balance our budget on parking? If there are people who need it for turnover, then let’s study that street.”

The council majority, however, continued to express doubt that the call for a more comprehensive study was anything more than a delay tactic that would not yield different results.

The owners at Ocean Place condominiums on 146th owners found the council’s skepticism particularly onerous.

“We get painted as selfish individuals who don’t want parking at any cost,” said unit owner Michael Feen. “At the very first meeting … I said that it was the process that was important to me. If a study comes back and says to put parking on 146th, I may not like it, but I’ll accept it because I’ll know it was done fairly.”

“I’ve been here long enough to see that studies can go the way you want them to go,” Mitrecic replied, noting that the council had looked at different streets and parking lots in detail during its budget hearings.

“Councilman Mitrecic hit the nail on the head,” agreed City Manager David Recor. “We began this discussion … with a comprehensive overview of all city-owned property.”

“You can guesstimate that an outside study would cost between $25,000 and $50,000,” continued Recor, who was appropriated $20,000 earlier this year for an outside consultant on his own strategic planning initiative. “A consultant is not going to make a decision. The mayor and council are going to make a decision.”

“Just telling me by Google Maps how many parking spaces there are on a street and multiplying it by a buck and a half per hour is not comprehensive,” Feen countered. “Is there any actual cost-benefit analysis? I’ve asked for it three times and not gotten anything.”

“That’s what we’re asking for here,” Pillas said, siding with Feen. “We’re not looking for a $50,000 study, we’re looking for an investigation that also includes comments from the citizens.”

Adding to the contention was the fact that the city bought the Cale equipment for the new paid parking areas long before this week’s passage of the ordinance that permits them. The meters had been ordered in April, after the council voted to add additional parking revenue into the FY14 budget.

“How do you order the thing before the hearing and before it’s really passed,” said local property owner Tony Christ..

But Meehan contended that the meters, if not used, would be used as spares, which is why the purchase was approved ahead of time.

“Thirteen meters is a lot of spares,” Ashley quipped.

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