West Palm Beach officials and merchants are making assumptions about plans to charge more for downtown parking. The city should test those assumptions.
At issue is how West Palm Beach should raise money to improve the city’s garages and install meters that will accept credit cards. There seems little debate over the need for these projects. The controversy comes from the staff recommendation to extend Monday to Saturday metered parking from 7 p.m. to midnight. The staff says the added money would cover the cost of improvements. Owners of businesses with an evening clientele say they will lose customers. Those owners want metered parking to end earlier, and they want the city to charge less, thus attracting more shoppers and diners and raising more money.
City staff members assume that people will come downtown in the same numbers even if they have to pay more for parking, because technology will make paying at the meter much easier. Business owners assume that fewer people will come. Both sides could be wrong. So, the city should test the expanded hours. A six-month test could be long enough, since it would test reaction during the summer, the period before tourist season starts and the season itself.
West Palm Beach has only two sources of revenue for parking improvements: fees and tickets. If those sources don’t bring in enough to upgrade the garages and install the new meters, the city would have to tap the general fund. Since West Palm Beach projects an $8.5 million shortfall in the 2013-14 budget, that would be a bad idea. From a city budget standpoint, metered parking is strictly a downtown issue; no money from the parking department goes into the general fund.
Parking, though, is an economic issue for the city and an issue for people who don’t live in West Palm Beach. The city’s population roughly triples during the work day, and everything downtown from CityPlace to a small restaurant depends on customers from outside West Palm Beach. Being Palm Beach County’s hub also will cost the city some of its 4,500 parking spaces, which will be lost to the convention center hotel and other development projects. Those losses will affect the parking system’s budget.
Some of the criticism by business owners could be on behalf of employees who might face higher costs. Ideally, downtown West Palm Beach would be free, as it is in the suburbs. Given the needs of the system, though, that’s not possible without unrealistically high subsidies. We can understand some of the resistance and skepticism, but better garages and new meters are investments. Try out the new system and see which assumptions hold up.
for The Post Editorial Board