Meter matters

Revenue allocations debated at city meeting

This kiosk at Second and Salem streets is the only one of its kind in Chico.

This kiosk at Second and Salem streets is the only one of its kind in Chico.

Photo By tom gascoyne

At the Chico Finance Committee meeting Tuesday (Sept. 24), business consultant Mike Trolinder, clearly somewhat frustrated, addressed committee members Mark Sorensen, Sean Morgan and Randall Stone directly with a couple of questions: “How do we move forward? How do we drive economic vitality?”

Trolinder was speaking at the tail-end of discussions on how the city should use its parking-meter revenue.

One of the purposes of the meeting was to talk about whether the city should allow the revenue to be used for things such as sidewalk widening, upgraded lighting and enhanced security, among a host of other ideas that came out of previous committee meetings in July and August and also through discussions with the Downtown Chico Business Association and its members.

As senior planner Shawn Tillman explained, that move would require a revision of the Chico municipal code by the City Council. Currently, the revenue is (supposed) to be used specifically for parking-meter supervision and regulation purposes; traffic control on city streets and in city parking facilities; the costs of buying, installing and operating the meters; to pay for bonds taken out by the city to operate and maintain public off-street parking; and alternative transportation programs.

The idea of using the revenue to enhance downtown is not a new concept. It goes back to at least 2006, when the city held a “Downtown Access Planning Charrette.” That series of workshops seven years ago yielded several of the same exact suggestions for improvements that were bandied about this week (such as security, cleaning, and lighting improvements, for example).

Downtown merchants and advocates at Tuesday’s meeting were quick to point out that the city had not followed through on “promises” of parking-meter revenue being reinvested in the very region from which it is collected.

While that may be true, Vice Mayor Mark Sorensen, the committee’s chairman, was hesitant to support a code amendment, particularly in light of the fact that the fund—like so many others in recent years—looks to have been used improperly.

“It’s another fund that got used for what it shouldn’t have been used for,” lamented Sorensen, alluding to the fact that a large portion of the revenue taken in through the meters had been paying for payroll and benefits expenses for certain employees, rather than its intended purpose of managing and maintaining parking, as well as creating new parking, as he explained later by phone.

For his part, Trolinder was most concerned with the lack of new-meter technology, the installation of which was recommended during those long-ago workshops. Currently, only the lot at West Second and Salem streets has a kiosk that takes credit and debit cards, as well as cash and coins. He made a case for the city pursuing this technology, noting that it would increase revenues. The technology allows for differential pricing that could, say, charge more for high-traffic areas and less for the outskirts. “We should be running toward [new-meter technology], but we’ve fumbled,” Trolinder said.

DCBA representative Dale Bennett respectfully disagreed, saying there are more pressing downtown issues to deal with than a lack of the new meters.

There was also some talk about establishing a property-based improvement district (P-BID)—a special district downtown that would assess fees from property owners—to raise money to fund improvements in the region. “We’re talking about safety and cleaning programs that are beyond what the city can provide,” said Tillman, the senior planner, Wednesday morning by telephone.

There was a failed attempt in Chico to create such a district about a decade ago. Approval would take a majority vote.

Toward the end of the meeting, the committee directed staff to move forward on establishing a capital reserve from meter revenue that would go toward preserving parking assets. The panel also decided to table the discussion on amending the municipal code, opting to see what comes out of a City Council study session on Oct. 22, in which downtown issues will be the focus.