For at least ten years, maybe more, parking meters in downtown Salem has been a contentious issue.
Back in July 2013, Carole Smith, a downtown resident, property owner, and activist, collected more than 8,000 signatures, many more than were needed to put a Stop Parking Meters in Downtown Salem initiative on the May 2014 ballot.
This celebratory poster appeared on many downtown businesses.
Because when confronted with the widespread opposition to parking meters in Salem's core, the conservative-leaning City Council at first did away with all time limits on downtown parking, then reversed itself in the fall of 2014, instituting a 3-hour time limit.
I wrote about this confusing back-and-forth state of affairs in one of my Strange Up Salem columns in Salem Weekly.
At its last meeting the city council initiated the return of a 3-hour time limit even though discussion of downtown parking was billed as “informational” on the agenda, with no action expected.
Yet without advance notice a motion suddenly appeared and was quickly passed unanimously. This violated the spirit, if not the letter, of Oregon’s public meetings law, which requires “that decisions of governing bodies be arrived at openly.”
Also, Council President Chuck Bennett falsely claimed that in 2013 the council had to adopt a citizen initiative to ban downtown parking meters and do away with 2-hour limits.
Actually the city council didn’t have to adopt the initiative language after 9,000 people signed a petition. Initiative backers wanted citizens to vote on the proposal in the May 2014 election.
Instead, the council voted unanimously to implement it immediately, choosing on its own to institute free unlimited parking.
Now the council has flip-flopped, unanimously moving to impose 3-hour limits from October through January after 30 downtown businesspeople submitted a petition asking for parking time limits to be reinstated, along with other changes.
Battling via successive dueling petitions is no way to form a viable downtown parking policy. This bouncing back and forth is absurd: 2-hour limit…parking meters on the way… no parking meters; no limits… 3-hour limit.
All in less than a year.
Now Salem Mayor Chris Hoy has said that he will make a motion at the Monday, February 27 City Council meeting "to direct staff to return to City Council with a plan to implement paid on-street parking in the downtown parking district and phase out the parking district tax."
Here's the reason as stated in the Discussion part of the motion:
Approximately ten years of parking studies indicate that downtown parking usage supports moving to a paid on-street system to manage demand. In 2020, 2021, and 2022 the Downtown Advisory Board’s Parking Fund Budget recommendations included a recommendation to transition to a paid on -street parking system.
Since 2013, the downtown parking tax has been capped at 2% annual growth or the CPI, whichever is less. The parking tax has not kept pace with the inflationary impacts to the costs of operating the downtown parking system. Additionally, the fund has lost significant revenue in recent years due to the closures of the Nordstrom, JC Penney, and TJ Maxx department stores, and pandemic impacts including an increase in remote working and online shopping habits.
A paid on-street system will improve parking demand management as well as stabilize and enhance the parking fund.
I'm uncertain about whether having parking meters in downtown Salem is a good or bad idea. It all depends on the details.
I'd view parking meters more favorably if the City of Salem dedicated the revenue from them to making improvements in downtown Salem. Deciding on how that money would be spent should be up to a genuine independent Downtown Association, which currently doesn't exist.
Using parking meter money to maintain the parking garages, where parking is free for downtown visitors, doesn't make a lot of sense. Why not charge for parking in the parking garages, so they are self-sustaining?
And I don't get why the current parking tax paid by downtown businesses is used to pay $200,000 a year to the Police Department to patrol the downtown area. That's crazy. I doubt that any other neighborhood in Salem has to pay for police services.
A Statesman Journal story says that in 2021 the downtown parking district collected $1.086 million in revenue.
Parking tax collections comprised $365,840 of the total revenue. Parking rent — fees that people pay for permitted spots —accounted for another $505,780.
Routine maintenance at the parkades cost a combined $355,490 in the 2021-2022 fiscal year. Police services to downtown cost $200,000. Trash disposal and container repair cost $36,630. A downtown clean team cost $75,000, and security services were $5,000.
Hopefully the staff report requested by Mayor Hoy won't simply be a City of Salem wish list, but will delve into the pros and cons of charging for downtown on-street parking. The Salem Climate Action Plan calls for this, since free parking encourages the use of cars and essentially is a subsidy for the most climate-unfriendly means of transportation.
Maybe this is finally the time for downtown parking meters to become a reality.
However, whether that reality is welcomed or cursed by downtown visitors and businesses will depend on how wisely the transition to parking meters is managed, and what benefits accrue from their introduction.