Days of free garage parking may be numbered

Revenues aren't keeping up with expenses

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By MARTY STEMPNIAK

Oak Park parking structures aren't generating enough revenue, and Village Manager Tom Barwin believes eliminating free weekend parking and adding a small charge for the first two hours might help close the shortfall.

Auditor Daniel Berg of Sikich LLP and Craig Lesner, Village of Oak Park's chief financial officer, presented an over-90-percent-complete audit of the village's 2006 budget to the village board Monday night.

Some village board trustees found digesting the 150-page document a daunting task, unsure what to take away from it, but Barwin felt the key issue is the lack of revenue in the village parking fund.

According to the audit, Oak Park anticipated receiving $350,000 in revenues from people coming and going at the gates of parking garages in fiscal 2006. However, the village debt for those structures is estimated at $1.1 million, along with $1 million in security contracts and additional money for operations, maintenance and repair.

"Roughly, you're taking in about $350,000 in cash and you're paying out about $3 million in expenses for just the garages," Barwin said. "Eighty-two percent of the parking that occurs in Oak Park structures is for free, and that's nice, but on the business side of the ledger, it makes us have to take bumps from other sources to pay those bills. We now have to begin to avert that trend."

Decreasing the debt is important because it would keep the village's bond rating attractive to potential developers, Barwin said.

However, he acknowledged the double-edged sword represented by the parking fund. Ending free weekend and two-hour parking would help address the parking fund shortage, but at the same time might hurt churches, the Farmers' Market and businesses that like to offer free parking to their customers.

As an alternative, Barwin suggested creating special self-taxing areas in the village in which businesses and organizations would pay a tax to fund the free parking they benefit from.

"[The parking fund] is bleeding money faster every year, and we have to do something about it," said Trustee Greg Marsey, glad Barwin didn't want to address the problem by simply increasing taxes. "We have to do something to get that under control or that problem is only going to get worse."

Trustee John Hedges stressed the importance of pinpointing parking fees that the Oak Park market could support.

"We need to have a really clear picture of how that's going to work and take into consideration the effects on the [surrounding] residential neighborhoods when people think, 'Well I'll just walk the two blocks to where I would've parked,'" Hedges said.

Trustee Ray Johnson agreed, citing a study in Denver in which increasing parking rates led to a corresponding drop in sales tax revenues.

Barwin said village staff will likely bring forward a recommendation to the board, urging it to vote on the removal of free garage parking and a charge for the first two hours, possibly at the end of the 2007 shopping season.

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