By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Residents and merchants of Healdsburg appear to be strongly against the idea of instituting paid parking.
Initially proposed as a way to generate revenue for the sinking city budget, the idea is now being sold by the Police Department as a way to also free up more downtown parking and keep a steady flow of customers for the benefit of shops and restaurants. But merchants aren’t convinced, judging from a city workshop on the paid parking proposal Thursday night.
“I have business owners calling me saying, ‘This will be the kiss of death,’” said Cathleen Boitano-Grande, owner of Bella, a boutique facing Healdsburg Plaza. She said people shop in Healdsburg not only because of the free parking but the smaller, unique stores.
Paid parking won’t obliterate local business, she said, but it will cut into it and cause people to go online to buy things rather than deal with the hassle of parking kiosks.
“I don’t like the idea,” agreed Marry Madden, a 30-year resident of Healdsburg. “I love it the way it is.”
“I know they need the revenue,” she said, but like several others who spoke Thursday, she said she would be more open to a half-cent sales tax hike that the City Council is considering placing on the November ballot as a way to overcome its general fund deficits.
Healdsburg had parking meters up until the late 1970s, but they were taken out, according to Mayor Gary Plass, at the urging of merchants.
Plass, who attended Thursday’s meeting, said, “The lion’s share of feedback I’ve gotten — and I’ve gotten a lot in the last couple weeks — is negative” to the idea of paid parking.
He said he received 65 emails and almost 40 phone calls on the topic.
“Obviously there’s a grave concern about changing the atmosphere and charm of the community,” he said. “They think it’s important the downtown stay a free, friendly parking place.”
But Plass said he still wants to remain open to the City Ccouncil exploring some changes in parking, including possibly having paid parking in some of the city lots, but allowing free on-street parking.
At Thursday’s workshop, attended by about 40 people, only a few raised hands when asked if they support paid parking. The others all expressed opposition.
One woman, who declined to give her name, said she would prefer to pay for parking over paying more sales tax. “It won’t discourage people from coming here,” she said.
Currently, parking is free in all of the 395 downtown street spaces and 267 off-street parking spaces in four lots. But there is a three-hour time limit.
The city has one parking enforcement officer, but her time is divided among other duties and she only spends half her time on parking.
Two years ago, the city had two full-time enforcement officers, but the hours were lost to budget cuts.
“We’re asked now to focus on core services. It’s become a great challenge to provide parking enforcement,” Police Chief Kevin Burke said.
According to Police Department figures presented Thursday, paid parking could net about $500,000 annually if parking remains free in city lots.
The department said paid parking can help pay for street and sidewalk repairs, beautification programs, and cut down on greenhouse gases as people cruise around looking for an empty parking spot, particularly on weekends and during special events like the Tuesday night concerts in the plaza.
There are two versions of parking kiosks under consideration.
One would be similar to what Santa Rosa installed in recent years — a “pay and display,” dollar-per-hour system. Motorists park and purchase a timed pass at a nearby kiosk using credit, debit card or coins, then display the parking pass on the dashboard.
The other method involves purchasing time for a numbered space at a kiosk, without a need to return to the vehicle.
A parking enforcement employee can check the kiosk, which will give a list of parking spaces with expired visits.
Police say the advantage of that system is that people can be alerted on their smartphones when their time is expiring and can purchase additional time via their phone without going back to the car.
Some residents also fear that a pay system will push motorists to park in the neighborhoods to avoid paying.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or email@example.com.