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Fewer meter hassles would encourage more to visit downtown, St. Petersburg mayoral candidates say.

Mayoral candidates Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster say they would reduce meters or fines to make downtown more friendly. The city has been adding meters and increasing parking fines.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Mayoral candidates Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster say they would reduce meters or fines to make downtown more friendly. The city has been adding meters and increasing parking fines.

ST. PETERSBURG — Kathleen Ford wants to eliminate all parking meters downtown and significantly reduce parking fines.

Bill Foster wants to create an amnesty program for first-time parking violators and reduce meter enforcement hours.

St. Petersburg's two mayoral candidates say that downtown's increasingly empty storefronts demand a more flexible traffic plan. Both candidates have developed parking plans that they say will make downtown more welcoming to visitors.

"We need to be more inviting and more friendly in our approach," said Foster, 46.

Both candidates insist their plans would not significantly reduce the parking budget.

The city's parking department has become a cash cow in recent years, creating a healthy surplus the city has used to help pay for improvements at downtown icons.

The parking department is expected to earn $4.7 million next year, including $1 million from parking meters.

In recent years, the profits have been used to make repairs at the Mahaffey Theater, Tropicana Field and the Pier.

The city has added 650 meters to downtown since 2007. Last year, the city lengthened enforcement hours at many downtown meters and raised parking fines to $25 from $17.50.

The changes fueled a spike in revenue from parking meters. It jumped to roughly $818,568 this year from more than $393,756 in 2008.

Under Foster's parking plan, city officials would keep track of citations by vehicle. First-time offenders would receive a warning.

"I want everyone to get one free oops," Foster said. "They can put something on the windshield that says, 'Welcome to downtown St. Petersburg. Please notice that we have enforced parking.' "

City Council member Jim Kennedy proposed a similar idea recently, but city officials swiftly shot it down.

"You don't want to tell people that you are not going to get a ticket because they are going to abuse it until they do get a ticket," said Joe Kubicki, the city's transportation director.

He believes parking meters are necessary, even attributing some of Beach Drive's success to the coin-demanding machines.

Businesses there wanted more enforcement to ensure workers weren't taking all the good spaces, leaving no room for customers.

"The businesses really need that turnover to survive," he said.

A St. Petersburg Times analysis of city parking data found Foster's parking amnesty program could cost the city more than $640,000 in its first year. The calculation is based on the 25,577 motorists who received at least one ticket in 2008.

Foster also said he would shorten parking enforcement hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. Some downtown meters are enforced from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Ford, 52, said she would direct the city to revert to time-limited parking for all public parking spaces.

Of 6,500 street parking spaces downtown, 1,450 have meters. The others are monitored by parking attendants, who chalk vehicle tires to mark the beginning of a parking cycle, and then backtrack once the allotted time has expired. If the vehicle is still there, the motorist receives a citation.

However, Kubicki said the city is trying to move away from this time-intensive system because it is less effective.

Not only do parking attendants have to closely monitor the spaces, but many downtown patrons quickly learned to avoid citations by rubbing off the chalk marks, Kubicki said.

However, this system was successful for years, said Ford, who also would lower the basic parking citation fee back to $17.50.

"If you are looking at a parking ticket of $25, you just won't waste your time to go downtown to see a movie or go to a restaurant," she said. "You will just go somewhere else where you can park for free."

While her plan would cost the city money, Ford said she estimates it also could help boost the city's shrinking sales tax revenue if it prompted visitors to spend money downtown.

At least one resident is happy to hear of the candidates' promises.

"You enjoy a long dinner with friends and come back to your car to find a ticket every time," said Melissa Howard, 24. "And if you don't pay it right away, the fine goes up."

Times staff writer Andy Boyle contributed to this report.

Fewer meter hassles would encourage more to visit downtown, St. Petersburg mayoral candidates say. 10/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 13, 2009 12:58am]

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