OCEAN CITY — It will cost more to park at the Inlet lot and along most streets and municipal lots in the downtown area this summer after the Mayor and Council on Friday agreed to across-the-board hikes to offset the increased costs of maintaining the facilities.
During a final budget wrap session last Friday, Public Works Director Hal Adkins presented a variety of issues related to the Inlet lot and on-street and municipal parking lots metered with the familiar CALE machines. In terms of the Inlet lot, Adkins said the parking lot booths are subject to flooding during storm events and water and salt have taken their toll on the electric conduits and equipment. Adkins said he is fairly confident his department can get through this summer with the compromised equipment but not so confident in future summers. As a result, the Inlet lot parking booths and configuration will have to go through another major restoration sometime in the near future.
To offset the anticipated expense of overhauling the Inlet lot, Adkins said there might be room for growth in the pay structure for parking at the Inlet. Currently, there are two parking pay rates at the Inlet during the summer and shoulder seasons. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the rate is $3 per hour, but during the rest of the week, the rates change almost daily but are generally $2.50 per hour.
From roughly April 1 to Memorial Day Friday, and again from Labor Day to roughly mid-October, the hourly rate for parking at the Inlet is $1.50. In an effort to eliminate the confusion in parking rates changing almost daily and to make the lot more efficient and perhaps most importantly offset the cost of anticipated repairs, the Mayor and Council on Friday agreed to increase the shoulder season rate from $1.50 to an even $2 and the peak season rate from $2 to $3.
Those rate changes caused the Mayor and Council to consider similar adjustments in the hourly parking rate at the municipal lots and on side streets where the CALE machines are operated. Currently, the CALE machines in are operation seven days a week during June, July and August, but in May and September, the days of operation vary. Adkins said it creates a checkerboard effect on the calendar and can be confusing to visitors and residents.
After considerable debate, the Mayor and Council agreed to raise the rates at the CALE machines to eliminate incongruences with the Inlet lot structure and create uniformity in the parking fee structure throughout the resort. As a result, the CALE machine fee will be increased from the current $1.50 per hour to $2 per hour across the board. In addition, the times of operation for the CALE machines was adjusted to April 1 to Oct. 31.
One fee that will not change is the Fourth of July rate on the Inlet lot. A few years back, city officials began charging a flat $50 per day rate on the Inlet lot on the Fourth of July and residents and visitors could hold their space all day at that rate from a day trip to the beach through the fireworks at night. There is also a $30 rate for those who get to the Inlet lot late in the afternoon. Those rates will not change, in fact Councilman Wayne Hartman suggested a similar pay structure could be implemented on the other municipal lots in the downtown area on the Fourth of July, but that suggestion got little traction on Friday.
The revenue raised from the increases in the fee parking fee structure will be reinvested in the Inlet lot to make it more efficient. Adkins said there are often times during the height of the summer when major backups occur leaving the Inlet lot. When improvements are made, leaving the lot is expected to improve.
“On summer nights, there are often long lines to leave and we believe that might tarnish an otherwise great experience,” he said. “It’s the last impression and we want to make it a better one.”
To that end, Adkins said the plan is to have all booths open at peak times during the summer of 2016. As a result, there will be higher personnel costs associated with the manning the booths, but the vehicles will be able to leave the Inlet lot quicker. In addition, efforts will be made to direct vehicles to less-utilized booths for quicker payment and exit.
Mayor Rick Meehan said last year an effort was made to be proactive rather than reactive when the Inlet lot started backing up.
“Last year, we tried to have all the booths open at peak times and not just wait until the back up to open the additional booths,” he said. “We also had police directing people to the open lanes. That seemed to work last summer.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said once the height of the summer arrives, there is little difference between a Tuesday and a Saturday, for example.
“In the summer, every night is a weekend night,” he said.
Last year, the Inlet lot generated over $2 million in May and September with the hourly rate set at $2.50. Adkins said he hadn’t calculated the change in revenue if the fee was increased to $3, but could imagine it would be significant assuming the number of users remained fairly constant.
“I don’t have that number but I think it’s going to be a significant amount of revenue,” he said. “Nobody is going to turn around and leave because of it. It becomes a philosophical question of what’s a summer day and what’s not a summer day.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman said with the current fee structure and mixed days of operation, there was a level of confusion for visitors and even residents.
“So many times we see people trying to feed the meters during the week,” he said. “They don’t read the signs or it’s confusing. We need to simplify it and increase revenue while keeping it fair. Going from $2 to $3 is certainly fair.”
Throughout the discussion, the parking rate changes were proposed for the summer of 2017, but Councilmember Mary Knight questioned why it couldn’t be moved up. As a result, the Mayor and Council agreed to implement the increases as soon as the machines could be adjusted and the proper signage put in place.
“Why not change it this year?” she said. “Everybody says how reasonable it is now. I don’t want to wait.”
Meehan said the fee increases were justified for several reasons. First, they haven’t been changed for several years, and second, the town continually reinvests in efforts to keep the Boardwalk and beaches clean and the revenue can be directed to those efforts.
“The strategic plan calls for making the community more livable,” he said. “Certainly, it’s not hard to justify when you see the things we’ve invested in that are tourism-driven like cleaning the beach and adding more resources to empty trash on the Boardwalk. The day-trippers need to share that. It doesn’t need to be tacked on to the taxpayer’s bill.”
Meehan outlined some of the new initiatives for this year for which increased parking revenue could be dedicated.
“We are buying a new vehicle for cleaning the Boardwalk and hiring three new people to do that,” he said. “A lot of that effort is directed in the Boardwalk and Inlet areas. We’re also increasing trash collection on the beach and doubling the number of cans out there. Those are all increased costs.”
Nonetheless, Meehan said he could not support raising the fees for the CALE machines back to April 1.
“The season has grown and it’s now more like May to September and not Memorial Day to Labor Day” he said. “April is still not the season and I wouldn’t consider increasing the street CALE machines from $1.50 to $2 in April. I just think in April there will be days when just one car is parking on the street and they’ll be thinking why am I paying to park? I’m not in favor in changing it in April. It’s a little early.”
On the opposite end, Knight said it made sense to keep the parking meters in effect through the entire month of October because of the number of special events during the month and what can arguably be some of the best weather of the year.
“I think we need to extend it through the end of October,” she said. “We’re building on some momentum with the Halloween and other special events and I think there is revenue there.”
After considerable debate, the Mayor and Council agreed to move the parking rate increases to resolution and it was added to Monday’s agenda.
“I feel we’re doing the right thing,” said Hartman. “People are here for tourism and that comes with the expectation of paying for parking.”