Panel debates need for parking rate hike

Evanston Parking Committee members Wednesday concluded they don’t yet have enough information to decide whether the city should raise rates at the three downtown garages next year.

The committee is trying to determine how much needs to be set aside for long-term maintenance of the garages, how much will be needed for operating costs and debt service and how much garage operations should contribute to the city’s general fund.

In addition, some committee members argue that yield-management programs designed to encourage greater usage of the garages could generate more revenue than a rate increase.

The city’s finance chief, Marty Lyons, told the group that the city’s bond debt on the Maple Avenue garage was finally paid off earlier this year, but the city still owes $38 million on Sherman Plaza garage bonds and about $1.5 million for the Church Street garage and downtown parking lots.

Lyons said the city is scheduled to make a $13 million debt service payment on the debt Dec. 1, but he said he didn’t know what proportion of that payment will be applied to reducing the principal outstanding on the bonds.

He said $11.8 million of the payment will be funded by transfers from the city’s downtown tax increment financing districts.

This year will mark the last payment from the Downtown II TIF, which is being closed out, but revenue will continue to be available from the Washington National TIF for several more years.

The proposed budget for next year forecasts a $3.4 million transfer from the Washington National TIF to help cover the debt payments.

The city is about to contract for a structural inventory of the three garages that should yield cost estimates for short- and long-term maintenance needs at the garages, but that’s not expected to be ready until January at the earliest.

Transportation Director Paul Schneider said that since the garages are relatively new, he anticipates relatively light maintenance costs for the next few years, with growing expenses in later years.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said the maintenance report is critical — noting that the aldermen were surprised to learn a decade ago that the then 30-year-old original Sherman Avenue garage was structurally unsound and needed to be closed immediately.

Under a parking rate increase plan adopted by the City Council in 2005, rates at the garage for monthly parkers are scheduled to rise from $85 to $90 next March.

But Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jonathan Perman said the economy is far different now than it was in 2005, and a rate increase now might lead to a reduction in garage usage that could wipe out any revenue increase.

In addition, Perman said, because of a maneuver used by the city to avoid making parkers pay a steep Cook County parking tax, any increase would be designated as part of the local parking tax — money that goes to the city’s general fund, rather than the general fund.

Currently $60 of the monthly parking fee goes to the parking fund while the other $25 goes to the city’s general fund.

So far the city has not reassigned any of the parking tax revenue to cover parking system costs. The tax generates about $1.8 million a year, which if it were added to the parking system’s $10 million proposed budget for next year, would increase that budget by about 18 percent.

Committee member Dave Reynolds said the parking tax revenue could be used to take care of the city’s parking assets, but Wynne responded that if the money came out of the general fund it would have to be replaced from some other source — presumably by raising other taxes.

Perman said the downtown garages now are never full and often all three combined top out at perhaps 75 percent occupancy for a couple hours on weekdays. By contrast, he said, downtown parking meters are 85 to 90 percent utilized most of the day.

He suggested that by providing rate incentives to encourage more use of the garages, the city might see a substantial increase in revenue without raising the basic monthly parking rate.

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