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Well it was a marathon Tuesday night, with an extension of a few minutes to address all of the items on the agenda. I’ll have a separate post on the meeting, this one looks only at the issue that seems to have this Council tied up: Parking.

Item 9.1.3 concerned a request from a downtown property owner planning to convert a top floor commercial space into three separate apartments. (Check out the meeting agenda for all of the details.) The net/net is that the property owner is unable to supply the necessary parking spaces required for the new apartments and requested the Town waive the ‘Cash in Lieu of Parking’ requirement, or reduce the fee. The current ‘fee’ is about $5,000 per apartment unit. The property owner was hoping to have it waived, or reduced to about $1,700. And they wanted to have a decision last night so as to permit time for the conversion of the building to apartments and be ready for the upcoming Canadore school year. The property owner indicated that they would not go forward with the conversion unless the fee was reduced or waived.

In the ensuing discussion Council wavered between cutting the developer a deal, sticking to established policy, and revising the existing policy. In the end Council made a reasonable decision. They agreed with the original Staff recommendation to decline to waive or reduce the parking fee. They did however request Staff investigate the current Cash in Lieu of Parking policy with an analysis of other communities’ policies and to return with a recommendation. It’s hard for me to convey a sense of how sentiment of cutting the property owner a break, and sticking to policy and procedure went back and forth. It was like end-to-end rushes in a hockey game with no sense of the outcome. Fun to watch but a little discouraging.

It was surprising to see how this issue tied up Council. Does it come down to election year politicking? Is there some sort of ‘affection’ for the property owner? Or were Councillor’s heads spinning because of the many challenging issues that had been addressed earlier in the meeting (rezoning and waste water in particular)? We saw a sharp about face on Bay Street parking meters a couple of months ago that led Council to ask Staff to provide a report on the benefits and challenges of removing all parking meters in Town. Is Council worried about their re-election prospects if they are seen as being too tough and inflexible? Perhaps they should be worried about their re-election prospects if their decisions are unpredictable and inconsistent with established policy. Certainly review and change policy, but don’t start making exceptions at the last minute for anything but truly unusual and demanding circumstances.

Concerning this particular cash in lieu of parking issue a few thoughts came to me as I listened to the discussion:

  1. The policy of cash in lieu of parking was established at some point for reasons that made sense to Council at that time. The current fees were probably set with some serious consideration for their consequences, including the varying levels of fees depending on whether the parking was within the downtown or not. Council shouldn’t throw out this type of policy, or make one-off exemptions without review and appropriate reflection. To their credit they didn’t.
  2. The $5,000 per apartment fee may seem high to some people, but it may well be a bargain compared to the cost of actually providing tenant parking.
    • Parking spaces cost money – an owner needs to purchase or own the land, which is not an insignificant investment in the downtown.
    • The parking spot needs to be ‘built’, be it a hard packed surface or pavement. That’s in addition to the cost for building or converting a rental unit.
    • The parking spot needs to be maintained, resurfaced from time to time, landscaped, and provided with snow removal services. In the downtown that’s not as simple as dumping snow on the Town’s or a neighbour’s property. It means hiring contractors to plow and as necessary take it away.
    • Parking spots add to the assessed value of a property, which means they increase property taxes.
  3. The $5,000 is a one-time fee. Pay it now and you are good forever, you have no cost to buy the land, construct and maintain the parking spot, and there are no taxes. Why should one property owner be exempted from the cost of providing parking when another who does the right thing takes on the additional costs? Yes it may be easier to rent and it more permit more pricing flexibility if you can offer parking with the rental unit. But it’s not clear at what point the cost of owning and maintaining a parking spot carries an economic benefit over foregoing parking spots and converting that space into larger or additional units without parking.

Council did the right thing by agreeing to take a step back and take a longer and more measured look at the issue. At a couple of points it looked like Council was ready to cut the petitioner a deal and lower the rate. That would have been bad business for all concerned. If by-laws and procedures can be changed at the whim of Council on any given night with no time for reflection is there any benefit in even having rules and regulations? The whole situation at 2 Avenue Road discussed at last night’s meeting highlights the same issue of regulations and consistency.

A couple of final thoughts and a suggestion.

Thoughts:

  1. What happened to the Council that was tightfisted and clearly intent on increasing revenue and cutting costs? I remember only a couple of years ago when Council was harassing Staff about finding new sources of income. I remember when fees for certain Town services were increased by Council with the sense that there shouldn’t be a free ride. Remember the ‘buy used rather than new’ requests of Staff? We need to keep the same type of fiscal discipline and not cut deals on the spot because it feels good. The budget challenges have eased but we still need to have the same discipline.
  2. The issue of timing should not have been a major consideration. If the property owner thought this was so important why didn’t they start the discussion six months earlier? Council is responsible for the timely approval or denial of requests that are in line with current policies and procedures. If people want exceptions or exemptions they need to plan ahead and provide Council with sufficient time to properly understand the implications of the request.

Suggestion:

The $5,000 fee provides a lifetime exemption from providing a parking spot for residences in the Downtown. Over a period of ten years that’s $500 per year, over twenty years it’s $250 per year, and over fifty years it’s $100 per year. Why not allow landlords to annually purchase an exemption for $250 per year per unit that would increase in price with the inflation rate? That way if they do a reverse conversion, apartment to commercial use, they would no longer need to pay for the parking exemption. Win-win.

I will be interested in seeing what the next Council decides 0n the issue of Downtown parking. For better or worse parking is a service and I’m not sure that we can afford to provide this or any other service at no cost to the ultimate user. As a resident of Parry Sound the cost for parking (resurfacing, snow removal, signage, enforcement – so people don’t park all day) will be added to my tax bill even if it benefits those who do business in Parry Sound but don’t pay any taxes. Making it a ‘free parking’ town would make it even more attractive for people to live in a neighbouring community, work in Parry Sound, and expect Parry Sound to provide services that their municipalities don’t provide. A final thought: how about we seriously consider dropping parking meters and the like once the hospital drops their parking fees. Like Parry Sound the hospital needs to provide services while balancing their budgets. A charge for parking really is as close to a true and direct user fee as you can get.

A Well Deserved Month Off Off for Council to Enjoy Simple Pleasures of Summer (Parry Sound in Black & White)

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