OCEAN CITY — The resort’s parking task force met this week for the fourth and final time before the summer season and closed with all proposed options still on the table including expanding paid street parking in other areas of town.
From the beginning, task force members asserted the point of the exercise was not to immediately make the jump to expanding paid parking, but it became clear fairly early on that revenue was the driving force. Finding ways to make up an estimated $1.7 million shortfall in parking revenue is now clearly the stated goal. Essentially, increasing parking revenue is an opportunity to have day-trippers pay their fair share of the cost for beach cleaning, maintaining the Boardwalk and infrastructure and other amenities that make Ocean City a desirable destination.
In simplest terms, the task force’s conventional thinking is day-trippers are the third leg of a three-legged stool. Property owners support the services through property tax and those visitors who stay in hotels or rent condos pay their share through the room tax. Expanding paid parking or at least increasing the hourly rates in the areas where paid parking already exists is a way to help ensure day-trippers are doing their part. Of course, the two groups that make up the other legs of the revenue stool would be affected to some degree by an increase in paid parking, but the challenge is to insulate them somehow from any recommended changes.
The basic options on the table when the task force convened on Wednesday included increasing the rates in areas where paid parking already exists, expanding paid parking in the ocean block from 11th Street to 33rd Street, or expanding paid on-street parking in the ocean block from 34th Street to the Delaware line.
Each of the latter options would likely include a residential permit program. Also included in the discussion was having paid parking at just a portion of the parking spaces in the ocean block, the concept being there should be a premium for parking in those most convenient spots closest to the beach.
Finally, there has been considerable debate about giving something back to offset the proposed increases, including making the shuttle from the Park-and-Ride in West Ocean City free and reducing or eliminating paid parking in the shoulder months of April and October. At the outset of Wednesday’s meeting, Mayor Rick Meehan, who appointed the group, urged task force members to enter the exercise with an open mind.
“It’s an important discussion,” he said. “The combination of all of these things is going to result in a recommendation. Let’s all say what we think today.”
City Engineer McGean said the purpose of Wednesday’s final meeting before adjourning for the summer season was to winnow down some of the options. He said he was not looking for any firm recommendations on Wednesday, but rather some broad direction for what he and hired consultant Dan Kupferman of Walker Consultants should continue to explore through the summer season.
“The goal is to get some kind of direction,” he said. “We want the task force to give us some broad direction and begin to narrow this down. This is the last meeting for this season and we’ll reconvene after the summer season.”
For his part, Kupferman said an important first question needed to be answered first before any firm recommendations were made. He said a summer’s worth of new data would make decisions on where to expand paid parking and how much to charge easier if there was at least a desire from the task force to explore it.
“Do you want to do it?” he said. “That’s the first question. If the answer is yes, then you start to look at the hours and the rates.”
Task force member Brett Wolfe said whatever decisions are made, there should be some uniformity in the rates and the fines in different areas. He said the current situation is a mish-mash of different rates at different times and differing fines depending on the area.
“It just seems like there is too much confusion,” he said. “Why do we have these layers of rates and fines. We need more consistency than less.”
Kupferman presented data based on demand that showed the ocean block paid parking generates more revenue per space than the Inlet lot. The caveat is the sample size is much smaller, but Wolfe questioned if that was the case, why was the hourly rate at the Inlet lot was higher.
“If there is more demand on the ocean block, why does it cost less than the Inlet lot?” he said. “It’s a logic and fairness issue.”
Kupferman used the analogy of sliding scales on hotel room rates to explain the difference.
“It’s just like room rates,” he said. “Why is this room $80 in April and not the same in July? It’s a demand issue.”
Throughout the debate, it was pointed out often that day-trippers already help the town by supporting local businesses and expanding the tax base. McGean said it was a misconception that sales tax generated by private business is somehow funneled into the town’s coffers.
“We get property tax, room tax and a half-a-percent of the food tax, and that’s dedicated to the convention center,” he said. “We don’t get any of that. If somebody buys $50 worth of gas or an umbrella from Sunsations or a T-shirt on the Boardwalk, we don’t get a penny of that.”
However, Meehan said visitors who fill the restaurants and patronize the shops contribute to the town’s economic well-being indirectly in other ways.
“They are supporting the businesses,” he said. “They do play a part in the success of Ocean City. They support businesses, who, in turn, pay employees. It’s a circle of life kind of thing.”
Kupferman attempted to dispel the notion that expanding paid parking or increasing rates in areas where it already exists would deter people from coming to Ocean City.
“You don’t think people are going to come to Ocean City?” he said. “People are willing to pay to do that. Ocean City is not going to become a ghost town because of paid parking.”
Kupferman said people have expectations to pay for parking when they visit other areas and what makes Ocean City unique is paid parking is limited to just certain areas.
“Parking is a limited resource and there’s a cost associated with it,” he said. “All cities have paid parking and Ocean City is no different. The big difference is your paid parking is concentrated in a small area.”
Kupferman said Ocean City’s greatest asset was reason enough to consider expanding paid parking.
“You have this amazing beach,” he said. “You have 10 miles of beach with parking in close proximity. It’s an amazing resource. Nobody wants to pay, but they do want to come here and they are willing to pay.”
Meehan pointed to the convenience of being able to park in close proximity to the amenities one wants to enjoy.
“When you’re on vacation with your family, the most important thing is time,” he said. “If you can find a space close to where you want to be and you have to pay for it, you will because you want to save that time.”
For the record, Meehan has said repeatedly he does not support expanding paid parking and stood by that on Wednesday during eventual straw poll votes on some of the options.
Each of the options for expanding paid parking includes a residential permit program or set-aside with a portion of the spots on a given street remaining free. Councilman and task force member Dennis Dare at an earlier meeting used the analogy of choosing to pay more to fly first class rather than flying in coach in terms of parking in those spaces closest to the beach and Boardwalk or choosing to drive around and finding a free spot further away.
“Maybe we don’t need to look at 11th Street and up with the entire street,” he said. “Maybe 50% is too much. Maybe it could be just those spaces closest to the beach. It’s back to my point about flying in first class versus coach.”
During the debate about expanding paid parking or increasing rates, the task force has been cognizant of the potential push-back from visitors and the discussions have included ways to give something back. For example, there has been considerable debate about getting more out of the relatively underutilized Park-and-Ride in West Ocean City and one option on the table is to make the shuttle that transports visitors into town free.
“I think you need to figure out a way to make it truly free,” said Kupferman. “Making the shuttle free from the Park-and-Ride is a give back. If you raise something, you want to give something back. If you’re going to raise the rates somewhere else, the concept is to have a free option. The Park-and-Ride can be an alternative.”
Kupferman said another potential “give back” is reducing or eliminating altogether paid parking in the shoulder seasons of April and October, perhaps eliminating it during the week from Monday to Thursday.
“In April and October, there is low demand and, consequently, low revenue,” he said. “There is an opportunity to reduce or even eliminate paid parking during the week in those months and give something back in the shoulder seasons. It would mean a loss of $38,000 in revenue, but it could be a measure of good will.”
In the end, McGean systematically called for a straw poll vote on each of the options on the table including increasing the rates in existing paid parking areas, expanding paid parking in the ocean block on other areas of town, making the Park-and-Ride shuttle free and reducing or eliminating paid parking in April and October.
“‘I’m trying to narrow the focus,” he said. “What I’m asking from this task force today is what to do want to leave on the table? Do you want to consider raising the rates at the Inlet lot? Do you believe the rates should be raised at the existing on-street parking? Are there any of these four options where you say Terry and Dan don’t waste any more time on that?”
In some cases, the votes were unanimous, but there was a majority vote in favor of keeping each of the options on the table for further discussion with more data and other information collected. At the end of the day, just about every option discussed, short of doing nothing, was left on the table as the task force adjourns for the summer.