With Oak Park's five parking garages showing a deficit of around $3 million in 2007, the village has to do something. Village Manager Tom Barwin and staff believe eliminating free parking is the best place to start.
"This garage subsidy has gotten to the point of cutting into our core basic services," Barwin said. "If you cut into those, that's going to hurt anybody, including the business community. That's where we are. ... We have no more wiggle room; we have no fund balance."
The village board likely won't vote on a parking rate hike until later this year, but in a study session last Thursday, trustees had a chance to debate the issue, which could affect all parts of the community: residents, businesses, and government.
In the past year, about 75 percent of all transactions at Oak Park garages were free, with the village taking in about $500,000 in revenues, not including permits ($960,000).
On the other side, the village spent about $2.9 million on garages in 2007, along with $1.7 in debt, which comes out to a deficit of $3.14 million.
To reverse the shortfall, the village is proposing a rate of $1 for the first hour, $2 per hour for the next two to five, $3 for six hours and up, to a maximum rate of $18. With those rates, the village could hypothetically bring in around $250,000.
Some trustees said the increase will hurt businesses, while others believe it's a necessary first step in the 2008 budget.
"The big [change] is getting some revenue and breaking this expectation that parking is supposed to be free at structures in Oak Park," Barwin said.
Trustee Jon Hale said he wants to see numbers from similar communities on how adding or changing parking fees affects them. He would like to maintain some free parking to support retailers.
"A priority of this board is retail revitalization, and these rate structures are just limited to how these garages operate," Hale said. "They have a broader impact on the business community, the retail community and how people shop."
Trustee Greg Marsey said he's wary of "analysis paralysis" and getting bogged down by the numbers. He acknowledged that a fee might decrease garage traffic but said it's important to at least capture some revenues.
"It will almost certainly reduce the number of trips, but I don't think significantly enough to outweigh the additional revenue we're going to collect," Marsey said.
"We're going to create a lot of discussion, angst with everybody to collect $250,000, and I don't know that that's worth it this year," Trustee John Hedges said.
President David Pope agreed, saying the small benefit to the parking fund balance from a rate increase would be outweighed by any shifts in parking behavior. He worried that downtown visitors might circle all over trying to find free street spaces, adding to congestion in the area.
The $250,000 revenue estimate doesn't consider changes in parking behavior, which makes that estimate overly optimistic, Pope said.
"A positive impact to that fund balance may not be sufficiently material, particularly if it's going to drive changes in behavior," Pope added.
Trustee Ernest Moore wondered if making villagers pay a fee for a garage created by tax money would be overbearing on taxpayers.
"Aren't I being taxed again?" he asked.
Trustee Ray Johnson said the village needs to market its garages better and present their advantages over parking on the street: clean, well lit, covered from rain or snow, etc.
"I'm totally fine with a rate structure; there's no such thing as free parking," Johnson said. "You can't even get a cup of coffee at the airport without dropping $3 for the first hour. So this puts us on the step of some financial leadership."
"I have a really difficult time understanding how beginning to address the rate structure is going to cause irreparable harm," said Trustee Jan Pate. "I think that people may have a knee-jerk reaction, but over time they're going to adjust."
"This village can no longer, in my opinion, continue to subsidize public parking," Marsey said. "We have no fund balance. ... When the conversation is through, somebody is going to have to pick up the tab."
Village staff plans to come back to the board with more detailed info on parking rates and their effects on similar villages. The board will decide on the rates probably by the end of this year.