ST. PETERSBURG — A survey of downtown businesses, many of them along Beach Drive, has changed Mayor Bill Foster's mind about reducing metered downtown parking.
On the campaign trail last year, Foster promised that he would offer a parking amnesty program for first-time violators and reduce the hours of some metered parking.
Foster said he still plans on the amnesty program, but has backed off reducing the hours of metered parking. That's still in keeping with what he said on the campaign trail, he said.
"I remember saying that I'm willing to change metered parking depending on the will of businesses," Foster said. "Guess what? The businesses have spoken up."
They responded to an informal poll by Evan Mory, the city's manager of the parking division. Out of 28 businesses that responded to the question of whether the city should enforce parking meters only between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, 24 of them said "no." Meters operate from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week along Beach Drive. That's where 15 of 17 businesses surveyed said they didn't want metered enforcement just between 9 and 5, which would be a reduction in the current enforcement hours.
Of 21 businesses asked if the city should eliminate Saturday parking enforcement, 19 answered "no." Of the 15 businesses asked about eliminating Sunday enforcement, 10 of them said "no."
"Some people might be surprised by these results, but I'm not," Mory said. "Business owners realize the meters keep the spaces open for their customers. If the spaces were free, then people would stay there all day."
Meters collect about $925,000 a year in revenue, plus another $1.5 million from citations.
Business partners like Lornie Mueller and Rose Mueller of Lithos Jewelry say meters are terrific additions to Beach Drive, and should stay.
"They are the best thing to happen here," Lornie Mueller said. "The Saturday market is a bust for us because people park in the street spaces and don't shop, taking parking away from our customers. But the meters force them to move their cars. If it weren't for the meters, that market would be the kiss of death for us."
In the survey, Lithos is recorded as being against reducing meter hours. But so is Bob Serata, another jeweler on Beach Drive who operates Bernies & Son and hates meters because they antagonize his customers. He said he'd pay the city to buy two spaces in front of his store so he could provide them free to his customers.
Yet Serata is recorded in the survey as being against eliminating meters on Saturday and against limiting metered enforcement on the weekdays during business hours. To Foster's eyes, it looks like Serata doesn't want to reduce the hours of metered enforcement.
"Completely incorrect," Serata said.
Mory acknowledged that he knows about Serata's dislike of meters, but said he was told by the jeweler that he didn't want the spaces to be free because that would mean there would be no available space for his customers.
"If he changed his mind, I'd be happy to note it," Mory said.
Parking spaces in downtowns like St. Petersburg's are resources that need to be protected, said Joseph Zeoli, the city's managing director of administration and finance. If the space is free, its value drops because someone is monopolizing it without compensating the city. If the space comes with a fee, or with the promise of a ticket if someone stays too long, then it helps protect that resource for the city, Zeoli said.
"Meters do the best job of allocating a scarce resource," he said. "If a free space is always occupied, then you're not getting the result you desire, which is a free space for people to come to downtown."
Restricting meter enforcement to business hours Monday through Friday would cost the city about $777,000 a year, Mory said. Eliminating parking enforcement on Saturday would cost $177,000. No enforcement on Sunday would cost $115,000.
There are 6,500 street spaces downtown, and 1,450 of them are metered. The others are monitored by parking attendants who swipe the back tire with chalk. If that mark is there when they return within various time periods, that car gets a ticket. This type of enforcement isn't as effective as meters, he said.
For one, the attendants must make two trips to ticket a car. A meter requires only one. In addition, employees who work downtown know how the chalk system works and find it easier to deceive.
"If you're a downtown employee, you know how to circumvent the system," Mory said. "They wipe the chalk off with squirt bottles, or move the car around the block. Meters are just easier to enforce."
Foster said he will present a conclusive report to the City Council next month that will detail what changes will be made. Two weeks ago, he said he might add parking meters in certain areas to enforce between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and raise the hourly rates from 50 cents to 75 cents. He still wants to forgive tickets on first-time violators, or at least on violators "who obviously don't know better." Foster said these cars would be identified by out-of-state or out-of-county license plates.
"We want to make sure we are as inviting and welcoming as possible," Foster said. Still, that would come with a price tag. A Times analysis of city parking data found that a parking amnesty program could cost the city more than $640,000 in its first year.
The city might invest in technology that can recoup lost ticket revenue by detecting if a car has been moved or the chalk wiped off to dodge a ticket.
While there is no plan yet, Foster is prepared to add meters.
"I've always put the needs of the business community above everything else," Foster said. "This is one issue where I'll put their needs first."
Reach Michael Van Sickler at (727) 893-8037 or email@example.com.