An ad hoc meeting will be formed to pursue different future for program

PASO ROBLES — To quote Paso Robles City Manager Ty Lewis, there was some robust conversation at the City Council meeting Tuesday night surrounding the downtown parking program. Downtown business owners and community members came out to express their position on the controversial program at the meeting held on Tuesday, June 6.

In February, the City Council voted to make changes to the program, which launched as a 90-day pilot program in March. Concerns regarding revenue, consumer confusion, and parking availability were addressed. During that meeting, the council decided to keep two free hours of initial parking, increase the hourly parking rate to $2, and implement the Flowbird parking management solution. Flowbird allows users to pay for parking through kiosks, text messages, or a mobile app.

Launched in 2019, the parking program was initiated to address the lack of parking downtown, which was specifically said to be caused by business employees taking up parking in front of the downtown businesses. However, the program has not yet achieved cost neutrality, with expenses exceeding revenue. According to staff, revenue has relied on citation fines which amount to a starting $50 — which staff notes as an unfavorable reliance.

During the 90-day pilot program, there was a total expense of over $103,000 with a net loss of approximately $46,000. Within those 90 days, over $34,000 of the revenue came from paid citations. Staff reported that “will not reach cost neutrality without citation revenue.”

Staff’s report says that during the month of March and April, there were 100,046 total parking sessions, of which 88,897 were free parking sessions (89 percent of sessions). Also, during those months, 32,604 sessions were paid by app or text.

Members of the public, including downtown business owners, spoke with overwhelming disdain for the parking program. Some told experiences of not receiving a warning for a parking violation — which is what was described in the program — and instead received a parking citation of $50. Other concerns came regarding glitches in the Flowbird kiosk and app programming.

Katelyn Smith, the owner of two downtown businesses, expressed concerns for her employees and businesses.

“We are now being targeted by one of the parking ambassadors, and I say that specifically because he told me he would cite me at any opportunity that he could, and he does,” explained Smith. “I know I am not the only person, downtown business, or resident that receives this treatment.”

She also expressed safety concerns for her employees, who often walk three or four blocks away late at night after work with limited street lighting and police presence.

Jennifer Roush-Kloth, part-owner of Park Cinemas and Main Street Association member, helped issue a community survey for the parking program. Many, she said, feel defeated and not heard by the city, and feel that tourists have become more important than the locals that live here.

“I have been asked by many to provide a voice for them,” said Roush-Kloth. “They [locals] are angry, they are frustrated, they want nothing to do with downtown anymore.”

According to Roush-Kloth, the public survey that went live on May 25 received 521 responses in 11 days. Over 80 percent of those responses found the parking program to have a negative effect on the community and wished for the removal of the kiosks.

Concluding her comments, Roush-Kloth addressed the council, “When are you going to listen to your constituents?”

Councilmember Chris Bausch declared his stance on the program: “My real desire here is to eliminate the program completely. That would be my preference.”

However, he was the only councilmember to feel this way.

Councilmember Steve Gregory said, “We have 700 employees downtown. They did and will take the parking spots over again.”

He added that after reinstating the two free hours of parking, he received several calls from businesses and community members who were content with that decision.

“In the next two years, we’re going to be adding hundreds of hotel rooms downtown,” said Gregory. “Parking is going to get really intense and this is the way of the future. You need to control the parking.”

Eventually, Mayor Steve Martin motioned to maintain changes to the parking program previously adopted by council on Feb. 21 and authorize the city manager to renew a contract for parking management services with Flowbird and additionally gave staff direction to pursue an ad hoc committee to explore future options for the program, including the option to get rid of the program altogether.

The motion was passed with a 3-1 vote, with Bausch voting no and Councilmember Fred Strong being absent.

The next Paso Robles City Council Meeting is scheduled for June 20 at 6:30 p.m.