Council deferred the parking summary report and its recommendations three weeks ago as it was not ready to debate the options and wanted more time to speak to stakeholders.
The original intent was to monetize the parking system to a far greater extent than pre-pandemic where we had hundreds of coin-based machines and 3 hours of free parking in the back lots. The pay and display system is far more economical than the old coin machines, were meant to be cheaper to own/operate and allow users to pay with smartphone apps, tap debit and credit cards and bring in badly needed income to the town to not only pay for the parking system and the enforcement that goes with it, but to also ease the tax burden. We have failed in this attempt, despite numerous tweaks and changes.
The system seems to be universally loathed and issues like screen readability in sunlight and user interface issues have been blamed for the low usage, the resulting financial losses and as a reason why people are not shopping downtown as often as they used to pre-pandemic. While the root cause of lower downtown traffic is debatable, the parking system, in its current form, cannot be eliminated as one of the causes. Therefore I propose we rip the band-aid off and cut our losses. However, if we are not going to make any money from parking, I am equally steadfast in my belief that we should not lose any money either. Parking is never “free” and “somebody” is going to pay for the costs of the parking lots. The question is who? The beneficiaries of parking downtown (building owners and their tenants) or the entire taxpaying base of Midland.
We’ve heard from the Business Improvement Area (BIA) leadership, who represents about 1/4 of the downtown businesses. We have heard from vocal supporters of “free” parking in Midland’s downtown core and we’ve certainly heard from residents and visitors about their user experiences with the system over the past year.
For context, the BIA used to subsidize parking costs downtown with financial contributions to the former Midland Parking Authority. In addition, they also helped pay for two weeks of parking in the lead-up to Christmas. They also used to pay for street outreach downtown (to help with homelessness). For many years now, they have not helped offset the parking costs, asked for a full month of free parking in December, and they stopped paying for street outreach. Instead, the costs have been shouldered entirely by the entire Midland taxpayer. I simply expect the beneficiaries of the parking lots to get some skin in the game and help to cover the costs of the lots that they alone benefit from having available, at no charge, to shoppers and visitors to the downtown core.
For a history of the system, to learn more about the $250k we lost in 2023 on the system, and to review the report’s recommendations, which include raising rates, removing coin options and clawing back free seniors parking at the town dock, click here to read my update from three weeks ago.
At next Wednesday’s council meeting, the report returns to us and I expect council to be ready to debate the options AND consider the option that I am proposing: the elimination of paid parking (and those machines) from our downtown core.
My proposal: Eliminate the paid parking program, remove the machines and make it “free” and implement a special area levy, payable by downtown benefiting property owners (estimated at $780 annually/average property) instead of passing the break-even costs along to every ratepayer in Midland.
That estimated yearly cost (noted above) won’t be to absorb the initial losses of decommissioning the parking program, exiting the contract with the vendor, selling off the machines at a substantial loss, or to recoup the losses we’ve incurred since going live with the system post-pandemic. Those decommissioning costs would be borne by the broader Midland tax base as a stinging lesson learned.
The estimated $780 annual cost will simply cover the moving-forward yearly expenses relating directly to the parking lots and those costs include:
- paying property tax on the lands
- insurance to allow public use as a parking lot
- maintenance (snow clearance, sanding/salting, sweeping) & asphalt repair
- lighting / safety
My proposal does not include ANY profit for the town which means parking will be truly “subsidized” instead of “monetized”. Most importantly, and to be fair, the proposal does not see the downtown building owners shoulder the costs of the failed system or the costs to decommission it.
I am not convinced that the broader Midland taxpayer should subsidize parking downtown. I am prepared to skip this as revenue source, since we clearly can’t execute on that mission, but I am not prepared to abandon cost-recovery and don’t feel it is unfair to ask the beneficiaries of a service to shoulder all, or at least a majority, of the costs to offer the “free” parking. If they can make a case as to why we should push these costs along to the rest of the community, then I might re-consider this stance. I’d even be willing to compromise with 80% paid by the beneficiaries and 20% passed along to all ratepayers – but to suggest that 100% of the costs should be borne by ratepayers is neither responsible nor fair.
In summary, I support our beautiful downtown and the many building owners, merchants, shops, services and residents who call downtown home. I also support the concept of “free” parking downtown but – nothing is free. At any big mall or box store, the costs of those lots and spaces are baked into their prices (and substantial profits). Unless we keep paid parking in our public downtown, “someone” is going to pay to make it feel free. The question is who? Those who benefit from the parking spaces – or the entire Midland tax-base. You know where I stand on that one. Please speak to your councillors about this before next Wednesday evening.