Going in: Drivers who park at the public garage on North Boulevard near Oak Park Avenue currently get their first hour free.Photos by GRAHAM JOHNSTON/Staff

he hour of free parking in Oak Park public garages might disappear in 2012, as part of a package of parking rate hikes village hall is considering.

Rates would remain untouched at meters on streets and in parking lots, according to Village Manager Tom Barwin. But those who buy quarterly parking permits would see an increase of up to $17 each month, if the proposal moves forward.

Under the new plan, motorists would pay $1 for the first two hours of parking in public garages — located at Harlem and Ontario, Lake and Forest, and on North Boulevard near Oak Park Avenue. Barwin believes that shoppers may have been rushing to get out before the first free hour ended, and thinks the change may encourage people to stay longer.

“Then maybe people won’t be in such a hurry, and instead of hitting one store, they might hit two. Or instead of just inhaling a sandwich for lunch, they’ll stop and buy a book or check out the jewelry store,” Barwin said.

Oak Park re-evaluates its rates every year around July, as it works to put together a budget to present to the village board in the fall. The village’s parking fund is still running a $3.8 million deficit, which Barwin said stems from years of costs outpacing revenues.

Charges at garages would remain unchanged after two hours. Meanwhile, quarterly parking permits would go up by between $5 and $17 each month, the highest increase being for 24-hour permits for nonresidents in high-demand areas.

Village hall informed the business community — including reps from Oak Park’s three major shopping districts — of the possible hikes last week, as part of a committee that helps advise the village on parking. Mary Jo Schuler, head of the South Marion business association, admitted that she’s not happy about increased fees, but prefers them to higher property taxes or privatization of garages.

“Those funds need to come from somewhere,” said Schuler, who owns two businesses on South Marion. “We all have an interest in our local government functioning in the black, or at least in a break-even manner.”

Pat Zubak, head of the Downtown Oak Park business association, wants more information on how many parkers will be affected by the changes. She’s leery of using parking fees to pay off debt to build garages, but thinks $1 for two hours is still reasonable.

“It’s not just trying to gouge everybody who lives or works in town. That’s not the situation at all,” Zubak said.

The last time Oak Park raised its parking rates was in January, when parking permits went up by an average of $9 per quarter, and the village hiked fees for those parking their cars in garages longer than four hours. Barwin estimated that about 20 percent of people who park in local public garages stay for one hour or less.

All together, the changes, coupled with $50,000 in unspecified cuts, would raise an extra $400,000 for the village each year. The hikes are far from finalized, and will be discussed by the village board as part of budget deliberations this fall.

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