OCEAN CITY — The resort’s parking task force is recommending a plan to hike some rates during the peak season while offering free parking during the shoulder seasons, while expressing no desire to expand paid parking.
The parking task force, a panel made up of elected officials, business owners, residents and other stakeholders, met last Thursday to begin meting out some real recommendations to forward to the Mayor and Council. The task force met multiple times last spring to begin collecting data and forming conceptual ideas for altering the fee structure in existing paid parking areas to enhance revenue, while maintaining fair and palatable rates for visitors and residents.
The task force then went on hiatus for the summer, during which more data was collected, concepts were molded into firm options and potential changes became clearer. The task force reconvened two weeks ago when options were presented, based on the recommendations of the consultant, City Engineer Terry McGean and his staff and the task force members themselves. At the close of that meeting, ballots were distributed instructing members to rate the various options and begin closing in on a preferred option to forward to the Mayor and Council.
Last Thursday, McGean presented the ballot results to the panel with the preferred Option C emerging as the favorite. By way of background, paid parking is currently in effect from April 1 through Oct. 31. The current flat rate is $2 per hour in the municipal lots and on the street and $3 per hour at the Inlet lot.
The preferred Option C, ultimately approved by the task force, would nudge those hourly rates slightly higher, but would give something back to the consumer through free parking at the Inlet lot, the municipal lots and on the street where paid parking already exists below 10th Street. In simplest terms, the goal of the task force’s undertaking is to explore ways to increase revenue from parking to help offset growing budget demands and shift some of the responsibility for maintaining the beach and Boardwalk to the day-trippers, all while keeping a paid parking fee schedule fair and palatable to all consumers.
The preferred Option C appears to achieve those goals. Under Option C as presented, parking at the Inlet lot would be free during the week from Monday to Thursday in April and May and again in September and October. The hourly rate at the Inlet lot in those shoulder months would be $3, while the hourly rate would go to $4 per hour in June, July and August.
At the municipal lots and existing on-street paid parking areas, the same formula would be applied. In those areas, parking would be free during the week in the shoulder seasons and $2 per hour on the weekends. The hourly rate would then jump to $3 per hour in June, July and August.
Again, Option C achieves the desired goals in terms of increasing revenue. The combined increase in revenue from all of the elements comes in at around $1 million. At the same time the option extends an olive branch of sorts to the consumers in the form of free parking during the shoulder months. From the beginning, the task force’s goal has been looking at ways to increase revenue while not making any changes too onerous on visitors and residents and Option C appears to achieve those goals.
The task force appeared to be poised to send a favorable recommendation for Option C to the Mayor and Council. It’s important to note the task force is merely an advisory panel and the ultimate decision will be made by the Mayor and Council. Before vote was taken on Option C, however, questions were raised if the $4 hourly rate at the Inlet lot during the peak summer months was too high.
“I’m not wild about the $4 rate,” said task force member G. Hale Harrison. “I’m happy with a lot of things in here because it gives something back. I just think the $4 rate at the Inlet lot is going to be the headline. That’s what people are going to take away from this.”
Councilman and task force member John Gehrig agreed, pointing out the $4 peak season rate at the Inlet would be applied evenly throughout the week.
“I think $4 is too high,” he said. “I also think Thursday should be part of the weekend. I think $4 is pushing it. Summer week days are not the same as summer weekends. The demand is not the same.”
Ocean City Police Department representative Glen McIntyre said in his experience from a customer relations perspective, the consumer is less concerned about the hourly rate and more concerned about where and when it is applied.
“We don’t get many questions about the cost,” he said. “The questions we hear the most are ‘do I have to pay?’ and “how do I do it?’ Once they figure that out, they find the kiosk, make their transaction and move on.”
Task Force member Joe Groves pointed out the consultant’s recommendation was for $4 per hour at the Inlet lot during the height of the season.
“We paid the consultant a lot of money and his findings showed $4 is acceptable for most people,” he said. “The studies proved that. It’s not going to stop people from coming to Ocean City and it’s not going to stop anybody from buying an ice cream cone on the Boardwalk.”
Councilman and task force member Dennis Dare reminded his colleagues of the primary intent of the undertaking, which is finding a way to tweak the parking rate schedule to share the burden of maintaining the pristine beaches and Boardwalk with the day-trippers and ease the burden on the taxpayers.
“Most of what we’re talking about is parking for the beach and Boardwalk,” he said. “Around $2 million is spent on beach replenishment, the beach patrol costs around $2.4 million a year, public works maintenance of the Boardwalk is another $730,000 and cleaning the beach costs another $1 million per year. All that adds up to around $4.8 million per year. That’s about six cents on the property tax rate. I don’t have an exact number in mind, but my feeling is the visitors and day-trippers should help offset the cost of that $4.8 million.”
After considerable debate, Harrison offered a compromise he believes will meet the revenue goals while no alienating consumers. He made a motion to approve Option C, but reducing the hourly rate at the Inlet lot from the proposed $4 per hour to $3.50 per hour during the peak months of June, July and August.
He also suggested extending the $3.50 hourly rate at the Inlet lot into September. All of the other elements in Option C would remain the same, including free parking during the week in April, May and October. The task force ultimately approved the modified Option C.
In summary, the task force’s recommendation for the Inlet lot is free parking during the week in April, May and October and $3 per hour on the weekends during those months. During the peak months of June, July, August and now September, the hourly rate at the Inlet lot would jump to $3.50. Currently, the Inlet lot is $3 per hour from April through October.
The 50-cent increase during the peak months would be offset by the free parking offered during the shoulder months. At the municipal lots and the existing on-street paid parking areas, a similar formula would be followed. Parking would be free during the week in April, May and October and $2 per hour on the weekends during those months. In June, July and August, the rate would be $3 per hour across the board. The net result of all of those proposed changes is an increase in revenue of around $1 million.
The task force voted to send that recommendation to the full Mayor and Council.