CLEARWATER — Elizabeth Makowski has waited tables at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill on Clearwater Beach for seven years, usually arriving well before her morning shift to snag a precious free parking space along the side streets of the mostly pay-to-park beach.
Last week, one of her favorite spots along Poinsettia Avenue had a no-parking sign.
A call to the city confirmed her fears: Free parking on the beach — never plentiful to begin with— might soon be a thing of the past.
Instead, beach workers or their employers can buy $40 monthly parking decals — $60 in peak season — to park in designated lots.
"I'm lucky to make $40 a shift in off-season," said Makowski, 33. "People who work out here can't afford to pay it."
She is rallying workers though a petition drive and plans to address the City Council at its meeting Thursday.
The city's parking manager and auditor have been studying the issue for several months. The city has a financial interest in getting people to pay to park, city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli said. If the parking garage at Surf Style on S Gulfview Boulevard goes belly-up within the next few years, the city is "financially responsible," she said.
And beach businesses can buy the decals as a way to attract and retain employees, Castelli said.
While "we all like free parking," Mayor George Cretekos said, the revenue from parking meters pays for beach cleaning, lifeguards and other amenities.
The roughly 200 free spots will likely eventually disappear, replaced with meters, City Manager Bill Horne said.
It isn't fair for some businesses to have free parking for their employees while others don't. The free spots aren't benefitting tourists, he said.
His intent is to do away with free beach parking, but he'll consult first with council members, Horne said.
Charlie Frago can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters or mail letters to the Tampa Bay Times, 1130 Cleveland St. Suite 100A, Clearwater, FL 33755