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October 21, 2017

10/12/2017 7:28:00 AM
Future of downtown parking lots uncertain
With exit of Cleary Foundation and DRI, lots may be sold

Jamie Taylor
River News Reporter

The future of the independent Parking Advisory Board, made up of two city of Rhinelander alderpersons and two members from Downtown Rhinelander Inc, and the Cleary Foundation, is uncertain now that DRI and the Cleary Foundation have stopped contributing to the board's budget.

The board has enough money left in its account to cover two more years of maintenance, electricity and snow removal of the parking lots, the city's finance, wage and salary committee learned at its Oct. 3 meeting, however after that time full control of the lots could revert to the city.

Finance committee chair Mark Pelletier, who also chairs the parking advisory board, started the conversation by passing out a sheet outlining the advisory board budget as well as a way to restructure the group so it can continue to function.

Since the Cleary Foundation and DRI are no longer contributing, and the board's contract recently expired, now is a good time for the city to look at how to proceed from here, Pelletier suggested.

The city's share of the parking advisory budget is $30,000. Half of that amount comes from the funds the city receives in exchange for leasing space in the Anderson Street parking lot for the AT&T cellphone tower.

The board was set up so the upkeep of parking lots would not be on the tax roll, Pelletier noted.

Without the DRI and foundation contributions, the board's proposed 2018 budget has a deficit of $10,371. It is projected to have a $7,371 loss for 2017. The 2017 loss includes $27,000 that has already been set aside to pave the site of the former Kabel Auto and Lindey Cleaners buildings.

In his presentation Pelletier said the proposed annual budget for the board would be $44,029 and the board is projected to have $91,900 in its account at the end of 2017. He pointed out the biggest portion of the budget is spent on snow removal.

"They say white is gold come Christmastime, it is not for parking lots," Pelletier said.

"I just have to ask because I'm not on this committee - just you and Steve Sauer are on this committee - we can see the writing on the wall, we can see this coming," said alderperson Sherrie Belliveau. "Why did this city ever take over another parking lot across from the library, doing one at Lindey's and now talking about doing one over here? Why do we assume more parking lots when we really can't pay for the ones we got?"

Pelletier said some of the lots could be sold in the future.

"I just don't know why we ever took on more parking lots when we knew this was coming up on the horizon," Belliveau reiterated. "It bothers me a lot."

Pelletier said some of the lots could have structures built on them while others could not due to soil contamination.

Alderperson Alex Young reminded the committee the parking advisory board was started at the insistence of DRI when that group formed.

"DRI came to exist because of the parking problem downtown," Young said. "At the time, the parking utility was losing money and we were in the position of selling the lots and getting out of the parking business. DRI formed to make a contribution, that was their original purpose, and they eventually branched into other areas of downtown improvements."

If DRI is no longer going to help fund parking lot upkeep, the city will have to decide what to do going forward, he added.

He then asked when DRI last made a contribution to the parking advisory board and was told the last contribution came in 2016.

"Pretty much right after the BID went away," Pelletier said.

"And after the BID district (which funded DRI) got dissolved, they had some money in the bank, a large part of which came from the BID district, but it was all together in one pot," Young said. "Regardless, they had some money in the bank, they're putting some toward Christmas lights and other things, which they apparently feel free to do, but not pay for the parking lots which was their original purpose in the first place, bothers me a little bit."

Since DRI no longer has a steady funding source, it falls on the city to decide what to do with the lots.

"Our $15,000 that we've (the city) contributed towards this comes out of TIF 5. The budget that we've looked at for TIF 5 for next year doesn't include that $15,000," Young said. "TIF 5 isn't going to exist forever anyway, so we're back to square one, we have to figure out how to fund parking lots."

Young said TIF 5 encompasses the old job center and that it is an old district that still has some money in its fund but is no longer generating increments.

Pelletier noted the parking lots have not been on the tax rolls for 12 years, much like Northwood Golf Course.

"That doesn't justify this, but times also change, so if half of them are sold that made a fund that would let this (advisory board) run for 20 years..." he said.

"They said that about the Park City Credit Union greenspace, too, and that didn't last to long," Young cut in. "Once there was a pot of money, it got spent down."

"Has there been any talk of leasing the lots out? We do have some businesses where quite a few of the employees buy permits," said alderperson Dawn Rog. "What if instead of buying permits they leased sections of the lots for fulfilling the employee parking?"

Pelletier said that idea hasn't come up yet, but could in the future.

"Because there are a lot of them that are obviously landlocked," Pelletier said. "Without naming any names, there are a lot of them that people come and use an awful lot of spots while they spend a lot of money downtown.

Belliveau said comparing the parking lots to the golf course was a "ludicrous statement."

"Because we're not adding to the golf course, we are adding parking lots," Belliveau said. "I think this is going to be a taxpayer burden and we need to quit building parking lots that we can't afford to maintain."

Alderperson Tom Gleason noted if the parking lots were sold to a private entity that entity could then charge people to park in them.

"So your employees that don't want to pay to park are going to take up all the spots downtown that you're going to want all your shoppers to park in and they are going to be full of employees with your shoppers having to pay to park," Gleason theorized.

"We could have (police chief) Lloyd (Gauthier) down there writing some tickets," Young replied.

"Or you have the option of generating revenue by putting in parking meters," Gleason said, adding that he has no problem selling some of the smaller lots such as the one across from the library.

"But the bigger ones? Man would you really hamstring your shoppers by having those lots gone," he added.

Young said the city has to decide how to operate the parking lots in both the short and long-term since the decision-making body that controls them technically doesn't exist anymore.

"If the contract no longer exists, I guess we don't have a parking advisory board, if that was established by contract," Young said.

As a long-term solution, Pelletier suggested a new formation as follows: a five-person committee made up of two alderpersons, two downtown business owners and one at-large member.

Rog asked if there is a reason the parking lots shouldn't be overseen by the finance committee since all of the money would be provided by the city? Pelletier asked if finance would be the appropriate committee, why not public works?

"Finance would oversee it because it is money," Pelletier said. "But doesn't that give finance the justification to oversee almost everything? Which I wouldn't want, because everything is money."

Belliveau said the appropriate oversight committee could be determined later.

"Taxpayers are going to absorb the cost, we really don't need two downtown business owners on that committee. It should be city-run only," she said.

She also asked if the advisory board ever did a parking study because there appears to be adequate parking as it is now.

"We keep adding parking lots," she said. "Do we need parking lots?"

Pelletier said the parking advisory committee has no control over parking on city streets, just in the city lots. And even if someone were to complain about on-street parking, there is no enforcement action Rhinelander police can take.

Mayor Dick Johns that when there were parking meters downtown, there were steady disputes about them.

"We had a lull of about 10 years and now it's starting up again," he observed.

No action was taken but the topic will be discussed at the next committee meeting. Afterward, Pelletier was asked when the parking advisory board would next meet. He said most likely there will not be another meeting until the finance committee decides to take action on restructuring the board's makeup.

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at jamie@rivernews

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