City Council acts on parking ideas

March 30, 2011

"Happy button" is a maybe but "Cash key" is out as new terminology for an old topic - downtown parking.

Parking intersected two main items of business in Monday's Hood River City Council meeting.

Another new term - $50 parking ticket - was also discarded.

With the "happy button," some meters would be installed with a button that vehicle owners could push to give them 10 extra minutes free.

The "cash key" system, similar to a debit card, was suggested by City Manager Bob Francis.

The council reviewed a long list of suggestions for relieving the downtown parking problem, including a $50 fine for violating two- or three-hour spaces, delaying some and moving ahead with others, including turning the Cascade Street lot into a long-term lot and reducing the cost of monthly permits at the Columbia Street lot.

Francis will return to council with a formal set of parking changes, including a $20 or $25 fine for violations longer than three hours. Council agreed that the $50 fine was too harsh and would solidify perceptions that downtown was unfriendly to consumers. The recommendations followed extensive consultations with the Downtown Business Council, which spent much of 2010 interviewing its members and the public on ideas for improving downtown parking.

The idea of the "happy button" might be put into practice in the next budget year, but council nixed the idea of a "cash key" system for people to pay for parking.

With the cash key, residents and visitors would pay a set amount that would be deducted from their rented key every time they insert the key into selected meters. Francis noted that merchants as well as staff at the city administration building routinely field requests from people who have no change to plug a meter when all they need is a quarter for short-term parking.

However, the cash key would involve start-up costs of more than $3,200.

Other ideas, such as a commercial district parking ordinance for parking-pressed Sherman Street, and a "courtesy ticket" program, were also put on hold.

The Cascade and Columbia Street lots will provide a close-in parking option for customers and for downtown employees. The Cascade lot, just south of the downtown post office, is currently a permit lot.

The Columbia lot, across from Full Sail, would remain a metered lot on the east end. The west end would be offered to downtown workers and the monthly fee would be reduced from $35 to $25. This would encourage workers to park there instead of street-side spaces and "plugging" the meters throughout the day, which tends to take away spaces from potential customers.

"We want to incentivize employees," said Lisa Wiltse of Gorge Dog, who worked with Francis on the parking review. "We're tired of punishing them for trying to find a parking spot."

In other business, the council held a lengthy discussion on seven options for meeting a request for budget assistance from the new Hood River Library District Board.

The council was asked last month if the city could help reduce start-up costs for the projected July reopening of the library. Council directed city staff to look at ways that would not exceed $10,000.

Those ideas included a $1 hourly charge, instead of the usual 75 cents, on State Street's diagonal parking spaces, in front of the library.

Other options for helping the library included an outright donation from the general fund, taking on the library park landscaping contract, an increase in the transient room tax to be dedicated to the library, forming an Economic Improvement District, and reduction in city water charges to the library from a commercial to a less costly residential rate.

City Attorney Dan Kearns and Finance Officer Lynn Rasmussen stressed that the city legally cannot direct funds to a specific purpose at another agency, but can make known its intention to assist the library because of its benefit to the citizens of Hood River.

Attending the meeting were library board members Heather Staten, Mike Oates and Mary Ethel Foley.

Mayor Arthur Babitz said it came down to two questions council needed to answer "yes" to, and all did by consensus: "Is it a high priority to the city to have a library"; and "What might the city entertain as avenues for the city manager to identify" as resources to help the library.

Setting aside some parking revenue, even if the State Street spaces remain at 75 cents, was one option. The other was underwriting the park irrigation costs.

Babitz said, "We acknowledge that without the library we would not get the revenues (on that portion of State Street) and it is in our interests to turn a portion of it over the library to support the park, which is a benefit to our downtown."

Council Member Ann Frodel asked, "What if we irrigated the park as if it were our own?"

Francis will review the council's direction and report back at a future meeting.

Council Member Jeff Nicol said he wants the city to talk with other stakeholders, such as the Chamber of Commerce, about the idea of increasing the transient tax.

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