MARTINEZ -- For years, city leaders have pushed for a downtown parking garage while simultaneously supporting policies that undermined the city's ability to build one.
For example, in 2005, Martinez withdrew about $436,600 from the parking fund to buy electronic meters, replacing the mechanical ones that were frequently vandalized and burglarized.
With the City Council contemplating a proposal Wednesday to take $46,000 from that fund to buy 69 parking meters that accept credit and debit cards, City Manager Phil Vince called for a new approach focused on solving the city's need for long-term parking, as the fund was intended to do.
"If you spend a lot of money out of that parking fund for short-term solutions, you will drain the $808,000 that's there rapidly," Vince said.
Revenue from the city's 1,100 parking meters, a portion of parking ticket fines, parking permit fees and property taxes collected from properties in the parking district, are deposited in the fund.
But revenue has not kept pace as expenses have ballooned. In 2001, the city spent $132,000 to administer the parking program. This year's budget projects expenses of $368,693, including about $169,000 in labor costs for collection and enforcement.
"We're making no ground at all increasing the long-term parking fund and restricting it for a garage some day," Vince said.
In May, the city installed 62 single-space parking meters that accept credit and debit cards along Main Street, from Castro to Court streets, for a three-month trial. Although city leaders believed the convenience of paying with plastic would appeal to drivers, during the trial period only 4.5 percent of people used credit cards. By November, that number had increased to just 7 percent.
Also during the trial period, the monthly fees Martinez paid banks to process credit card transactions and maintenance exceeded credit card revenue by about $580, according to data from the city.
Rather than buying 69 meters, Vince urged the council to extend the trial for another six months to see whether the gap between costs and revenue narrows and if greater numbers of people pay with a credit card. Vince also said the council should consider restricting parking funds for long-term solutions and trimming the budget.
Parking garages aren't cheap. In 2002, a consultant estimated that building a three-story, 200-space garage would cost about $2.5 million. Vince believes the city would have to spend at least $7 million for something comparable today. But even with a leaner operation, with current rates of 50 cents per hour for most parking spaces and 25 cents per hour for the 10-hour spots, it's unclear if the meters would generate enough money to make payments on the loan the city would need to pay for a garage.
"We are never going to catch up a quarter at a time," said Councilman Mark Ross, who called for a public-private partnership to build and manage a parking garage.
The council passed a resolution Wednesday ending by May 1 the informal practice of free parking for jurors. With additional jurors bound for Martinez due to court closures, the city projects an annual increase of $25,000 in parking meter revenue. Council members discussed raising rates in the areas where jurors park. But Vince acknowledged that intrepid jurors could find plenty of free parking within walking distance of the courthouse.
Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.