ST. PETERSBURG — Customers bustle in and out of the Tangier Deli on weekday mornings grabbing bagels and coffee, staying five to 10 minutes. They drop off or pick up dry cleaning at Monograms by Barbara for no longer than 10 minutes a visit. They eat homemade pasta at Primi Urban Cafe for a half-hour lunch.
But on Monday, some downtown business owners worried how these transactions, so vital to the downtown economy, might be affected after the City Council approved the installation of 275 new meters on the streets that front their establishments.
"Lots of people want to pick up a quick cup of coffee and leave, so I think that's going to hurt business," said Fatima Maloui, who works the counter at Tangier Deli. "It's too bad, especially at this time when people don't have a lot of money to spend."
The expansion of the city's paid parking system has been one of Bill Foster's central tenets as mayor. As tax revenue has plummeted, Foster has restructured how the city raises money.
Since 2007, the city's property tax rate has been $5.9125 per $1,000 of taxable value. Because of the collapse in housing values, the city will collect $34 million less than it did that year, at the same property rate. The cumulative reduction in property taxes over the past five years is $94 million.
So far, neither Foster nor a majority of the City Council seem inclined to raise the property tax rate to recoup the lost revenue.
Instead, Foster has moved toward plugging the gap by cutting some services and finding new money in user fees, higher fines and new penalties with the support of council members.
Nowhere has this approach been more apparent than on the street. Foster anticipates raising $900,000 in fines produced by a new red-light camera program launched last month. Since becoming mayor in 2010, Foster has doubled the price of meter parking from 50 cents to $1 an hour. He's also begun an aggressive booting program to get scofflaws to pay delinquent parking tickets.
And now more meters, which were approved by a 7-1 vote of the council Monday night. Wengay Newton voted no. He said the new meters were "extreme."
"All the fees are getting jacked up," Newton said. "This is a rope-a-dope. We keep the (tax rate) the same, but we kill you with fees."
Foster said he hopes the meters will end up helping businesses by making parking more available.
"I hate meters as much as you do," Foster told Newton. "But we have found that people are spoiled, they want to park close to the business they are frequenting, and the space won't be there if it's free."
At the same Monday meeting, council members approved a measure that increased the fine for illegal parking from $25 to $30, which is expected to bring in an extra $50,000.
Much of downtown, including Central Avenue and Beach Drive, already has meters, which were installed in 2008.
The new meters will be installed in an area of downtown that's bounded by Beach Drive, Sixth Street, Central Avenue and Second Avenue N. The area is dominated by small businesses — delis, coffee shops, jewelers, dry cleaners and barber shops.
This area is also notorious, according to city staff, for high parking congestion caused by employees abusing the two-hour parking system, in which they move their cars from free space to free space to avoid getting a ticket. Meters will force everyone to pay and steer employees to designated parking areas nearby, theoretically freeing up space for customers.
New meters will also help move more people into city garages. With just the meters, Foster anticipates raising $210,000 in extra revenue.
But business owners like Saverio Macaluso, who runs Primi Urban Cafe, thinks it will keep people away from his restaurant.
"Meters definitely won't help," Macaluso said. "Our customers will say, "If I'm going to pay for parking, why don't I just go to Beach Drive, where they already have paid parking?' People will go there and they won't come here."
In other business on Monday, the City Council voted 7-1 to approve the sale of the city TV station, Channel 35, for $500,000. Prime Time Partners, a Miami Lakes company, is the buyer. Only Newton opposed the sale, objecting that the city hadn't appraised the analog channel before accepting the purchase price.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.