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Pay to park: Coming soon to Vero's ocean beaches?

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of November 21, 2013)
Photo illustration: A parking kiosk similar to those proposed for Jaycee Beach and South Beach.

Pay parking for residents and tourists using Vero’s beaches may be in the early offing, with the Vero Beach Recreation Commission proposing that a trial start at Jaycee Beach and South Beach right after the first of the year.

The commission last week unanimously recommended to the City Council that it test out automated pay parking kiosks at the city’s two largest beaches this season, a venture that could bring up to $180,000 into city coffers this budget year.

“Annually, just for these two beaches alone, (revenue) would be about a half-million dollars,” said Recreation Commission Chairman Richard Yemm. “For all the beaches it would be about a million dollars.”

Under the proposed plan, if pay parking became permanent, city residents would be able to get a decal allowing them to park free.

The proposal is expected to be taken up at the Dec. 3 City Council meeting, according to City Manager Jim O’Connor. It would place kiosk machines in the parking lots of the two beach parks and require beachgoers to pay $1 per hour by cash, debit or credit card.

Two different vendors have offered 60-day demonstrations of their machines, so the city could test out two different systems for a total of up to four months if it accepted both offers.

To put the revenue potential of this into perspective, a million dollars is about one-fourth of what the city collects annually in property taxes. That same $1 million is nearly one-fifth of the annual transfer into the general fund from the electric utility. Each year, the city spends $1.4 million on recreation programs including lifeguards for the three guarded beaches.

In an effort to solve the ongoing challenge of funding beach operations, the Recreation Commission formed the Beach Parking and Events Subcommittee in July. The committee has met several times, joined by top city staff and Ocean Drive business owners to hammer out options.

Of the five options presented by Yemm last week, the pay parking kiosks emerged as a top choice.

“The use of parking meters on the beach – I can tell you that was immediately turned down,” said Yemm, adding that the more unobtrusive kiosks, which serve a large number of parking spaces with one machine, “do not mar the landscape.”

The other five options included doing nothing and eliminating lifeguard protection; raising property taxes; setting up a special taxing district; and asking the Indian River Board of County Commissioners to kick in to fund city beach operations.

Of those, the pay parking seemed the most viable and expedient option that would not further burden city taxpayers, who are estimated to make up about 30 percent of beachgoers.

“Right now you have city residents paying 100 percent of the cost. So there is a way for city residents through their ad valorem taxes to get credit for that through a decal system,” Yemm said.

Over the years, the city has entered into various state and federal grant agreements for beach funding and those agreements would govern what the city can and cannot do with regard to charging for beach access.

If the council was so inclined, the city could sell decals to non-city residents who live elsewhere in Indian River County. Other beach communities do this and charge $60 to $126 per year for the decal. The recommended $1 per hour rate was benchmarked against cities from Miami to Cocoa Beach, which have prices ranging from $1 to $8 per hour for beach parking.

Recreation Director Rob Slezak recognized that the city has never charged for beach parking before and that the issue could become emotional – just like the proposed lifeguard stand advertising signage did this summer. That idea, which was only expected to net about $13,000 annually, was killed after the council reversed its own vote in response to concerns about keeping Vero’s beaches pristine.

“This is going to be something that could really get things wound up,” Slezak said.

At least one Ocean Drive business is reportedly for the plan, which would also give merchants the opportunity to purchase ad or coupon space on the backs of the parking passes spit out by the kiosk machines.

“I know Mulligan’s is okay with the parking kiosks because it turns tables over and also keeps employees from parking there,” said Recreation Commission member Angie Schepers, spokesperson for the chain of eateries.

“He has restaurants up and down the coast and he knows this makes money for all the cities he operates in,” Schepers said of Mulligan’s owner George Hart, who is also a major sponsor of city recreation programs and of the annual Fourth of July fireworks.

But Georgia Irish, a banker and president of the Oceanside Business Association who serves on the Beach Parking and Events Subcommittee, is against the idea. “It has a lot of people fired up down here,” she said. The concern is that metered parking in oceanfront park areas could drive beachgoers into spaces in front of Ocean Drive shops.

“They should not be able to just come in and make a decision on this,” Irish said. “They need to talk to the shop owners. I know a lot of the city budget was cut, but there’s got to be a different way to create revenue than putting in parking meters. This is Vero Beach, for crying out loud.”

According to public records, South Beach has 264 parking spaces, including overflow and Jaycee Beach has 215 spaces, not including the Bethel Creek House parking lot which is sometimes used for overflow. That total of 479 spaces represents about half the city’s beach parking.

The test recommendation is to charge for parking between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The kiosks could simply be turned off during slow periods to cut down on enforcement costs. The city may need to hire an officer to enforce parking on the weekends at a maximum cost of $34,000 per year.

Yemm, a strong advocate for the kiosk system, said he expects to present details to city leaders on Dec. 3 to back up the commission’s recommendation.