Concord looks to save parking fund by hiring consultant
Concord’s parking fund is on track to run out of money in the next two years.
That’s the estimate laid out in a report to the mayor and city council proposing the creation of a parking strategic plan. Officials would like to hire a private consultant to study the city’s parking and propose changes.
A consultant would “see if there’s a better way to manage that supply to meet the (parking) need, not only that exists today, but also going forward into the future,” said Matt Walsh, the city’s director of redevelopment, downtown services and special projects.
The parking fund is designed to sustain itself without the help of taxpayer money; meter fees and leased spaces cover the cost of operating the parking department. Walsh said the fund’s debt payments for projects like caring for the existing parking garages and paying for the Capital Commons garage have increased. The fund’s expenses have been greater than its revenue for several years, and expenses will only increase, with $3 million in repairs to the Durgin Block garage scheduled for 2015.
“Essentially what’s happened is revenues have not kept up with expenses in the parking fund for several years,” Walsh said. “For a year or two you can absorb that, but what’s happened is this has gone on for several years.”
Walsh’s report is on the consent agenda for tonight’s city council meeting, meaning the council will not likely discuss the issue but will authorize Walsh to seek applications from consultants. Any proposed contract with a consultant would return to the council for a public hearing and vote.
Funding for the study would come from the city’s economic development reserve fund, Walsh wrote in his report.
Councilor Mark Coen, chairman of the city’s parking committee, said he supports the proposal to hire a consultant.
“I’m glad that I see the city council and the city administration being very proactive and trying to get a handle on the issue of the parking and the financials of it,” Coen said.
Because a consultant’s study could “make parking work better for everybody,” Councilor Keith Nyhan said, he also supports it. Nyhan chaired a study committee in 2009 that suggested changes to the city’s parking.
“I would not want this as a general fund expense,” he said of the parking study. “But whereas it’s coming from the economic development reserve, I think those dollars are already there.”
City Manager Tom Aspell said it’s time for the city to take a “business approach” to its parking division, because it is a key part of economic development downtown.
“Instead of parking as an enforcement item . . . there’s more of a business element to parking,” Aspell said.
Aspell began that new approach earlier this year, when Walsh’s job position changed to include oversight of the parking division. Parking Supervisor Dave Florence now only oversees day-to-day parking operations.
The last strategic parking plan is nearly two decades old. Concord and its parking needs have changed since that plan was published in 1994, Walsh said.
Concord has made changes to its parking since the last strategic plan; the Capital Commons garage opened in 2007, and the Ad-Hoc Parking Study Committee made recommendations to the city council in 2009. The council adopted some of those recommendations, such as raising the fine for parking tickets and installing parking kiosks. They raised the hourly parking rate on Main Street from 50 cents to 75 cents, but rejected the committee’s proposals of $1 hourly rates and extended hours of enforcement.
“Obviously that decision had an impact on where the parking fund is today,” Walsh said last week.
The parking fund has lost $750,000 since 2008, Walsh wrote in his report to the city council. It is projected to need about $1 million in support from the city’s general fund by fiscal year 2018 if left unchanged.
Coen said the “cash drain” of the fund and needed renovations to the Durgin Block garage are concerning. But the timing is also right to reconsider parking in Concord, he said.
“It really dovetailed very nicely, timing-wise, because of the Main Street reconfiguration and to really look at the impact that parking has, not only revenue generating, but also with how it enhances the downtown.”
Walsh said he hopes to bring a contract with the consultant to the city council for a vote in May. If approved, work would begin that month and recommendations would be delivered to the city council by June 2015. (The city’s redesign of Main Street is scheduled to be complete at roughly the same time.)
Walsh said there are consulting companies that specialize in parking. A parking study would include not only public parking, but all available parking downtown. The study area would span roughly from the University of New Hampshire School of Law to Interstate 93, and Ferry Street to Perley Street, Walsh wrote in his report.
The study would include input, an inventory of parking supply and land use and a study of the use of existing parking spaces. Walsh said the consultants would suggest a plan to care for the existing garages and parking equipment and study parking rates. That work could lead to changes in parking rates, hours of enforcement or areas where the city charges for parking.
Mayor Jim Bouley said he feels the city could benefit from a consultant’s expertise.
“I personally think that it’s a good idea,” Bouley said. “I think it’s necessary. I think that for the most part the city administration and the city council have done the best with what they have with parking, but I have recently seen what Manchester has done when they hired a parking consultant . . . we could draw upon somebody who has a greater breadth of knowledge.”