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Downtown parking dilemma returns to the agenda

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Debate is about to resume on one of Fresno’s most reliable sources of anger – downtown parking.

The City Council on Jan. 14 is expected to hold a workshop on the ugly past and none-too-pretty future of finding a spot to park your car in the heart of Fresno.

A half-dozen consultants have spent weeks digging into the sorry (or, in some cases, confusing) state of city-owned parking garages, parking lots, parking meters and street parking. Their report is about to arrive.

City officials at some point in 2016 will then decide whether to park their iron grip on your wallet.

“We’ve got to have a conversation about the cost of (providing) parking,” City Manager Bruce Rudd told me on Tuesday. “And that’s a prelude to a bigger discussion about parking rates.”

Of course, any veteran of life in Fresno has already shed oceans of tears over the absurdities of downtown parking. We’ll get to that history in due time.

But it was the council’s meeting of Dec. 17 that makes this latest journey into parking frustration all the more remarkable.

Late on that Thursday evening the council reviewed a nearly $8 million mid-fiscal year spending plan from Mayor Ashley Swearengin. Revenues were coming in stronger than expected. A few million bucks was unspent from the previous fiscal year.

The council loved almost everything on Swearengin’s list. The one exception: $400,000 for repairs to Garage No. 7 and Garage No. 9.

No. 7 is the well-known “spiral” garage on the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Inyo Street. No. 9 is tucked into a corner of a building at Van Ness and Merced Street. Both garages are just a few yards east of Fulton Mall. Both date back to the 1960s.

Rudd told the council that both garages have been battered by age. He said he’s got photographs of decay that’ll make your hair stand on end. He said the $400,000 is just a down payment on what needs to be done throughout the downtown parking system.

And, Rudd said, time is of the essence on 7 and 9.

Thank you very much, council members said, then voted to evenly divide the $400,000 among their seven district infrastructure budgets. The money will go to things like the filling of potholes and the trimming of trees, not fixing leaky parking garage roofs.

You can’t blame the council members. District infrastructure budgets deliver the kind of personalized patronage to lucky constituents that usually gets politicians re-elected. To voluntarily tackle downtown parking is to poke yourself in the eye with a sharp stick.

But Rudd was serious on Dec. 17, and he plans to be deadly serious on Jan. 14.

Simply put, Rudd is convinced the city doesn’t charge enough for downtown parking. This leads to deteriorating assets because the parking division isn’t generating enough money to maintain/rehabilitate them. This harms downtown at the precise moment the Swearengin Administration sees downtown revitalization poised to skyrocket.

And, since bills must be paid, any revenue shortfall in the parking division must be covered by the same general fund that pays for things like pothole repairs and tree-trimming.

You get the picture – Rudd on Jan. 14 will start working on the council to choose between 1.) reforming downtown parking in a way that makes Jane Q. Public pay a lot more for a parking stall, or 2.) keeping Jane Q. Public happy by reforming downtown parking with an even more generous subsidy from the general fund.

“There’s always a tradeoff,” Rudd said.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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