Bel Air might consider meters for downtown's last free parking lot

Revenue from parking meters and public lots in downtown Bel Air is not growing despite efforts by town officials to get more people to eat, shop and drink in town and, if the situation doesn't improve, one town official says they may have to start charging people to park at one of the last free public lots in the downtown area.

Fines collected from parking violations are also down, Town Administrator Chris Schlehr told members of the Board of Town Commissioners at Monday night's town meeting, another reflection that people are using the town's paid parking lots and on-street spaces.

"Use is down; fines are down," Schlehr said, as he went over a synopsis of the parking fund revenue and expenditures as a prelude to the town board enacting the fiscal 2014 budget.

If those trends continue, Schlehr warned, he might be forced to recommend installing meters on what he referred to as the "the Kroh's lot" on Pennsylvania Avenue a half block east of Main Street.

"The Kroh's lot could be a candidate for metering," the town administrator said. "I wouldn't rule it out."

According to the budget information Schlehr went over for the commissioners, meter collections are projected to decline to $168,000 from $181,000 budgeted in 2013, even though the town boosted the hourly rate on meters from 25 cents to 50 cents last June and also added 30 new meters with the completion of the new Main Street lot last summer.

Revenue from parking violation fines is also expected to decline, from $112,000 projected in fiscal 2013 to $96,000 in fiscal 2014.

On the plus side, revenue from leased spaces, which the town has tried to a aggressively market to businesses for their employees and customers, is projected to increase slightly next fiscal year to $73,500.

The parking fund budget is separate from other town operations and is supposed to be self sustaining, meaning revenue generated from meters, leased spaces and fines is supposed to cover the expenses of operating and maintaining the various parking facilities.

In Bel Air's case, the biggest expense is the downtown parking garage, which it owns and operates in a partnership with the Harford County government, with the town paying for a third of the operating and maintenance and repair costs and the county paying for the other two thirds.

During the current fiscal year and into 2014, the garage has been undergoing substantial renovations and repairs, a $750,000-plus project for which the commissioners also approved borrowing $270,000 for at Monday's town meeting.

More visitors, please

Schlehr's warning Monday about possibly having to put meters on the Pennsylvania Avenue parking lot comes at a time when a number of town officials have been gushing about the increased number of visitors in town, such as for first Fridays earlier in the month and last weekend's "House of Cards" casting call at the armory that drew an estimated 1,000 hopefuls.

In a touch of irony, perhaps, the Pennsylvania Avenue parking lot was originally conceived and built as a way to keep people coming into downtown Bel Air.

The lot, which has time restrictions on its spaces ranging from 15 minutes to two hours, is in the heart of the town's small remaining downtown retail area.

More than half a century ago, before strip shopping centers and malls and when downtown Bel Air was still a retail hub for Harford County, the town's merchants banded together to buy and build the lot in hopes it would make shopping a more pleasant experience for customers.

From newspaper accounts at the time, the merchants were mainly concerned that with more people owning cars in the post-World War II era, increased traffic and a finite number of street parking spaces would eventually discourage people from shopping in downtown Bel Air.

The new lot on Pennsylvania Avenue didn't stem the exodus of shoppers the merchants were correctly worried about, but the lot is certainly convenient for people driving to popular destinations like Kroh's Cleaners and Buontempo Brothers Pizza. And, it's still free, unlike the metered parking garage, whose entrance is just a few steps north on the same street.

Schlehr said the parking fund and the sewer fund, which is also run as an enterprise where revenue should meet expenses, "require a lot of close management."

Even with that close management, he said, "they are on the cusp every year" for going into the red.

In addition to possibly putting meters on the Pennsylvania Avenue lot, Schlehr also said Monday he "wouldn't rule out a sewer rate increase" in addition to the automatic annual increases that are tied to the consumer price index.

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