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Ocean City

City hoping for phone-pay parking by summer

(March 13, 2015) Among the list of familiar sights disappearing with technology, add this one — the summer phenomenon of flustered parents sprinting off the beach to feed the meter.

City Hall is now working at a fever pitch to have a pay-by-phone parking system in place for the 2015 season, allowing patrons to register their license plate and pay with a phone application, which will interface with the Ocean City Police Department’s parking ticket system.

Not only will the system allow visitors to add meter time remotely, it will also — City Hall hopes — cut down on credit card transaction hassles as well as the increasingly problematic enforcement element for the OCPD.

“Ultimately, we would rather have the parking revenue versus giving out more parking fines,” Capt. Kevin Kirstein said.

Last summer, the city brought in $1.66 million in revenue from parking spaces using the Cale brand meters — this includes all city-owned parking except the Inlet Parking Lot, which has a separate payment system.

The city also gave out around 6,000 parking tickets — almost 50 percent less than the 11,000 it gave out in 2010. This is due to an intentional draw-down in the amount of time the OCPD is actively ticketing, a process which doesn’t present a great return on investment.

“We’ve reduced what I’ll call our ‘ticketing season’ drastically over the past couple years,” Kirstein noted, in an effort to encourage downtown visitation in the shoulder season and reduce manpower needs for ticketing agents.

The hope is that with parking becoming more convenient via phone app, more visitors will fall into voluntary compliance with paid parking.

Although the city plans to get at least two additional price quotes before making a decision, the current frontrunner for app-based parking services is Parkmobile, which currently has the largest presence among East Coast jurisdictions, and thus would be more likely to have existing users amongst the city’s visitors.

“You might get a great deal from somebody in California, but it doesn’t help us if they’re not already invested in this area,” said Mayor Rick Meehan.

After downloading the app to their smartphone, users would register their license plate and a means of payment — credit card, PayPal or even iTunes store credit. Most importantly, Parkmobile’s database would link to the Complus brand handheld ticket printers and data loggers used by OCPD ticket agents.

If a printed Cale parking pass is not visible on a car, an agent could then scan the vehicle’s license plate, and their device would instantly show if that person had paid via Parkmobile.

The city would need to retrofit the five Complus machines currently owned by the OCPD with wireless transmitters, at an estimated up-front cost of $5,000 and $250 per month thereafter for a Verizon data plan.

This conversion would also enable tickets to be recorded by the OCPD in real time. Currently, tickets only enter the department’s records when ticket agents return from their shifts and plug in their Complus machines.

“A lot of the complaints we get are from people who want to pay their ticket quickly, but we don’t have record of it yet until the meter agent gets back to the station,” Kirstein said.

Parkmobile charges $.50 per payment user fee on top of any given jurisdiction’s parking rate. Of this, 35 cents goes directly to Parkmobile, while the other 15 cents is given to the municipality to offset credit card transaction fees.

Roughly 80 percent of the city’s Cale parking income is transacted via credit card. Last year, 266,449 Cale transactions cost the city roughly $103,000 in transaction fees, which run around $.39 per exchange, according to city Finance Director Martha Bennett.

Another option, which Bennett said would be preferable, would be for Parkmobile, not the city, to act as the agent-of-record for parking transactions.

In this case, the city would no longer get the $.15 cut of fees — but all payments would be run through Parkmobile’s credit agent instead of being routed back to the city, thus eliminating the transaction cost variable as far as the city is concerned. Parkmobile would collect the money and cut the city a check.

This also relieves the city of having to store and process credit data, something the town is increasingly wary of in an age of high-profile hacking scandals.

“This is a huge company that’s far more capable of hack-proofing their system than we are,” Bennett said. “It’s not so much about the money; it’s about security and publicity.”

After a positive review by the city’s Transportation Committee, the City Council approved solicitation of additional quotes from Parkmobile and at least two other vendors, with the intent of implementation prior to the summer.

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