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By Anna Lothson
The question of how to tackle Oak Park's outstanding debt in its parking fund was on trustees' minds when the 2011 audit was presented to the board last month.
In 2007, due to a combination of circumstances — like expected revenues that didn't keep up with debt service — the parking fund was in the red by more than $10.5 million, and necessitated a transfer from Oak Park's general fund.
That debt has since been reduced to around $3.4 million, with $500,000 being paid back in 2011. It's expected to be fully paid by 2019 if the current payment rate continues.
Interim Village Manager Cara Pavlicek, the previous parking services manager, said that the village experienced a demand for new parking, so garages were built. Revenue wasn't tracked, she suspected, which led to the revenue gap.
One factor may have been raising meter prices, she said, which created an incentive for people to invest in quarterly permits. Pavlicek said the village is defining a long-term strategy to repaying transfers back into the general fund. In 2012, $1.1 million is scheduled to go back into the parking fund.
At the last finance committee meeting, trustees agreed the parking fund needed to be an item of conversation at upcoming meetings. The issue was briefly discussed, as was the idea of increasing garage fees to help replenish the fund.
Trustee Ray Johnson pointed out that they can't be increased above street parking rates or people would simply avoid the garages.
President David Pope said rates don't necessarily need to be raised across the entire village. Instead there could be opportunities to adjust them in more popular areas.
"You can't put [the parking fund debt] on taxpayers when it should be on people using parking meters and garages," Pope said.
The concept of having debit and credit card meters was also brought up for a future village board discussion. Earlier this year, it was determined the village was spending $40-$50,000 per year for an armored car service to deal with its coins because most banks won't take large amounts of change anymore.
Overall, the parking fund was attributed as one of the ongoing issues cutting into the general fund, which has an impact on Oak Park's annual audit. While it continues to improve, village officials said it's especially important to balance the fund so it doesn't continue affecting other areas of the village's budget.