Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ferndale's "New" Parking System: What Went Wrong?

This fall brings with it Ferndale’s local elections for mayor and council, and with these elections comes the chance for residents to weigh in on how they believe the city is being managed, including the purchase and installation of the “new” parking system downtown. Some claim that all the problems with the electronic kiosk style system purchased and installed in February are over and done with, and that this should no longer be an issue. I believe differently, and suggest that we need a full accounting of how this situation came about, how much it truly cost – and is still costing, and how to prevent such deleterious decisions from happening in the future. I also think that plenty of voters will register their opinions come November 5th.

Last summer, City Council adopted the plan for the new system which involved cutting down most of our parking meters and replacing them with numbered posts and electronic kiosks spread around the lots. The plan was to install them in November 2012. It was to cost about $350,000.00. This was the single biggest mistake made. As in other cities around our region, they should have tried a pilot study, on just one lot. Had anyone bothered to call Bob Bruner, our former city manager who now runs Birmingham, they would have learned that they did a pilot study on one surface lot there, and it was pulled in just 30 days because of strident opposition. The people disliked the system immensely.

But Ferndale went for all the lots at once; they were installed in February, and the result was well documented. This was the second big mistake. Long lines, with patrons standing in the dark and cold, trying to figure out the system was the sad picture. We saw malfunctioning machines, including eaten credit cards, some not taking paper money, and some not working at all. At the same time the new system was installed, the rates were raised drastically. That led to more angst. The city rushed to buy more machines, and then lowered rates. And then they declared a parking holiday, with free parking for more than six weeks.

Recent verbal reports and public relations from the City of Ferndale have tried to paint a rosy picture of the latest results and trends from this parking system. The full truth is less optimistic. The total costs of the system, including staff time from City Hall, the DPW, and Ferndale police, and additional costs not yet added in or incurred, will show the total cost to be approaching one million dollars.

The city manager’s report of July 22, 2013 entitled “Auto Parking Fund Update”, shows that the total spent on hardware and consultants was $547,276.00 and total expenditures from the parking fund was $744,868.00 or ¾ of a million dollars. More costs are coming including staff time from the Department of Public Works, costs for new additional lighting, and additional charges for more management consultants.

New individual meters could have been installed over time, perhaps one lot at a time. These new meters could have taken credit cards, coins or other forms of electronic payment. Even the old meters took payment from smart phones. Royal Oak is moving in this direction.
That we need more parking is obvious. But with the disaster that has occurred over the past year, we are now behind a year in that goal. The auto parking fund would have $2 million in it this year had we not embarked on this new system. Instead, the fund has a quarter million dollars less in it now going forward. Parking revenue has fallen by tens of thousands of dollars since last winter. In addition, parking ticket revenue is also way down.
The Ferndale Police Chief himself was quoted in the June 5th issue of the Woodward Talk as saying that his officers had to explain the system to people and that parking enforcement was more complicated and involved. He said also that the new system had taken attention away from some of the residential parking enforcement that was needed.

Finally, members of Council or staff should have done their homework, and checked with neighboring cities on their experience. They should have visited a town with the same exact system. They should have called other city managers or mayors and simply asked how this went.
We have other choices to build a parking deck. Remember that two different developers agreed to build a deck in exchange for us allowing development such as stores or shops on the first level. We just needed to wait until the Great Recession was over.

Some say now that it is too late; we are stuck with what we have. Maybe so. But luckily for residents and voters, they get to chime in on their opinions of how their elected leaders have done. The new parking system is an issue that should be discussed during this election campaign, and responsibility must be taken for the mistakes that were made. We need a full accounting of all the costs associated with this project and we need to ask all of the candidates what they are planning going forward.

The mayor mentioned in the spring that the city council would review the parking rates again come December, and the City Manager’s memo of July 22 also lists those plans, and on December 1, 2013, she lists this: “Address the current rates and rate structures, including parking passes”. You know what that means. And that happens after the election.