City decides not to raise its parking rates | AspenTimes.com

City decides not to raise its parking rates

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times

Lorenzo Gonzalez, of El Jebel, feeds a meter near City Hall on Tuesday, hours before the Aspen City Council decided it will not increase downtown parking rates in 2015.

The Aspen City Council decided Tuesday that it will not raise downtown parking rates in 2015, meaning the Parking Department will lower upcoming revenue projections by about $140,000.

When the city's annual budget discussion began at the beginning of October, the Parking Department requested a 50-cent hike for the first hour of metered parking in downtown Aspen. Both Councilwoman Ann Mullins and Councilman Dwayne Romero questioned the move, given the recent parking scandal that has cost the city between $600,000 and $800,000 in lost revenue since 2010.

The council moved quickly Tuesday in axing the proposal, with Mayor Steve Skadron asking, "Can we just, at this point, suggest disposing of the proposed first-hour increase? Any objection on council? Can we get rid of that immediately?"

No objections were raised, and after the meeting, Assistant Finance Director Peter Strecker estimated that the decision will lower revenue projections by $130,000 to $140,000. Total revenue from metered parking and parking permits is currently projected at $2.5 million for 2015.

Installed in 2007 by Toronto-based vendor Precise Parklink Inc., Aspen's parking meters have been susceptible to a scam where drivers use prepaid, maxed-out debit cards. Because the system employs batch processing, the cards are not declined until the end of the day, even though paid parking is granted. The Finance Department estimates the total amount of declined transactions at $817,000, but Finance Director Don Taylor has argued that motorists ignorant to the scam have accounted for $121,000 of that. He also has made the case that some of the perpetrators only parked downtown because of the scam and would not have otherwise.

"It's my belief that a good percentage of the amount that was taken through debit-card fraud would have been people that would've parked in the parking garage at $5 a day," Taylor said Tuesday. "If there's revenue loss, it's in the parking garage."

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Councilman Adam Frisch questioned that logic, arguing that a lot of people would have parked on the street but didn't because spaces were occupied. Instead, those drivers either avoided town or found spaces in surrounding neighborhoods, he said.

"Twenty trucks come in, and they park for free," Frisch said. "My argument is that the people who came in right after, they did not pay because they were driving around town and town was full."

Frisch added that the city shouldn't make assumptions based on the first level of customers.

Currently, the first hour of downtown parking costs $2, the second hour costs $3, the third costs $4 and the fourth costs $5, a rate that will stand in 2015 if the council follows through with Tuesday's decision when it finalizes the budget in late November.

The council also held a lengthy discussion Tuesday on the city's parking garage at Galena Plaza, which operates annually at a deficit. According to Assistant City Manager Randy Ready, the garage's operating expenses in 2014 are about $652,000 and revenue is about $434,000.

Parking Operations Manager Blake Fitch, who is serving as interim parking director in place of former Parking Director Tim Ware, said garage expenses are high because the structure is underground. Expenses include upkeep costs for electricity, a fire-suppression system, a backup generator, revenue-control equipment, elevator operations and other structural needs.

Mullins said the garage's failure to break even doesn't make sense. Fitch responded that the Parking Department has exercised numerous options in attempts to increase revenue, including rate changes and advertisement purchases to spread public awareness about garage offerings. In 2013, the city even explored the idea of providing free electric rickshaws to shuttle customers into the downtown core.

Both Frisch and Romero agreed that the garage is a tough sell, with Romero pointing out that it has never operated in the black in any given year. Mullins regarded it as a concern worth discussing in the future.

herk@aspentimes.com

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