By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Parking will remain free in Howarth Park for now following a dramatic early morning decision by the Santa Rosa City Council to table the controversial plan until the city’s finances become clearer.
The council agreed to revisit in October a proposal to charge people $5 per day to park in the city’s most popular park. By then, it will have collected tax revenues from Measure P for a full six months.
“I would like to give Measure P a chance to work,” said Councilman John Sawyer. “We haven’t even seen the figures yet.”
The decision came after some council members warned their colleagues about the dire consequences of moving forward with such an unpopular parking program.
Councilman Gary Wysocky, the council’s most steadfast opponent of the parking plan, cautioned that voters might never again trust the city enough to support another tax measure if the council began charging fees at Howarth Park. Voters approved Measure P, a quarter-cent sales tax, in November to fund “vital city services.”
“The ill will that we’ll be incurring is going to outlast all of our tenures in public service,” Wysocky warned. “Heaven help this town if we need to come back for more help because it’s not going to be there. This is the wrong thing to do.”
The decision followed a hearing that didn’t even get underway until 10:45 p.m. because the item came at the tail end of a busy agenda following a three-week summer recess for the council. It didn’t wrap up until nearly 12:30 a.m.
Wysocky encouraged his colleagues to postpone the hearing because of the “volatility” of the subject and the few members of the public who remained in the council chambers at the late hour. But he was outvoted.
“I’d personally like to get it over with,” Mayor Ernesto Olivares said.
The proposed fees are $2 for two hours, $5 for a whole day, or $75 for a season pass. The city estimates it can generate $520,000 in fee revenue and fines from the program. It would cost $100,000 initially to launch and $160,000 annually to administer, meaning the city would generate about $360,000 annually.
The parking revenue — but not the $33 fines — would be set aside in a “trust account” and dedicated to the parks department, said Marc Richardson, director of Recreation, Parks and Community Services.
He said the plan makes sense because so many people park for free at Howarth Park to avoid paying the $6 and $7 day-use fees at the adjacent Spring Lake Regional Park and Annadel State Park. Surveys of more than 300 people showed 85 percent sometimes use Howarth Park to enter those other parks.
The late hour meant only a few members of the public spoke, but the ones who did made impassioned pleas to keep parking free for all, especially lower-income folks and families who use the park’s beloved amenities for kids, including the train, carousel, horse rides and boat rentals.
Santa Rosa native Cherie Maria said as a child she marked the passage of the seasons in Howarth Park — ducklings in the spring, the opening of the merry-go-round in summer, picking blackberries in the fall, and feeding ducks in the winter.
She spent so much time there, she said, because her family was poor and couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.
“Howarth Park was my vacation; it was my Disneyland, my camp. It was the place I grew up,” Maria said.
If the city had imposed parking fees, she and her mother would have stopped going because $5 would have been too much for them, she said.
“To me and my mom that was pasta and sauce, which meant dinner,” she said.
Jean O’Donnell said she, too, worried that low-income residents and families could not afford the fees and would use the park less, limiting the revenue the city would generate from the program.
“I think we’re going to start seeing an empty park,” she said.
Every council member came up with something they didn’t like about the plan. Olivares said he worried about the impact on businesses across Summerfield Road. Susan Gorin said it was time to “take a stand” against further “decimation” of the parks and recreation budgets. She added that it wouldn’t necessarily solve the parking congestion problem people experience in the park.
“It will just make them crazy” when they realize they need to pay, she said.
Marsha Vas Dupre said it just felt wrong. Jake Ours said he didn’t want yet another headache for the council.
“We have nothing but constant problems with parking in downtown,” Ours said. “I don’t want to bring another big problem to this council. We don’t need that.”
Even Scott Bartley, the lone council member who said he was willing to implement it, said so many new options kept being raised that he felt the council was “shooting from the hip” instead of thinking the plan out thoroughly.
“There’s lot of questions out there that make me a little nervous,” Bartley said, including the impact on surrounding neighborhoods.
Others questioned whether other parks should be added. Sawyer said the city could “go back to the drawing board” and rethink everything, from the amount of the fees to the days charged.
Olivares, who just two weeks ago expressed support for the plan absent some other ideas to raise the needed revenue, said more residents reached out to him as decision time approached.
“We weren’t getting a lot of feedback and suddenly we did,” he said. “It’s a very passionate issue for folks.”