A couple weeks ago the old order was already breaking down when I nosed off the street and entered the Gare parking garage. The juice was shut off to the old ticket dispenser so the ticket was handed me by a clerk.
On level 4 there were two white pickups and a big guy lying on his belly tightening down the tie down bolts on one of new Swedish-made ticket machines. I tell the level 4 guy that I am a reporter doing an elegiac piece about someone who will miss the old system.
Whats to miss? he growls. You dont like people, you dont have to talk to people anymore. Enter, theres no gate, leave when you want to. Get a ticket. What the hell is the problem? I grin at him.
Oh Christ, he says, looking up and stretching. Youre going to use that, arent you? Quote of the day, I bet.
I will miss the old system because it was kind to us absent-minded people. The Gare garage has been a refuge from the meter police. You never had to risk a $5 or $10 ticket when you got too involved in Northampton situations and Northampton encounters. But its the new world and people are out, machines are in. This change at the E. John Gare III garage, like most modern trends, transfers work from the company to the customer.
Before you got a ticket at the gate, and paid it off when you left. Now parking in the garage will be like parking everywhere else in downtown Northampton. You have to be alert, or you will pay the consequences. The fines go into the general fund, rather than into the parking reserve fund, an element that must please the mayor. The money that will accrue to the city is not big, something in the order of $150,000 to $200,000 a year, but it is unrestricted. And the city is eager, even greedy, to get every cent it can out of its other programs to avoid layoffs in education or public safety.
It starts to feel that government these days is increasingly predatory, selling sure-to-lose lottery tickets to seniors and poor people, ticketing everything they can.
Three days later I talked with Peter Skaza, who heads up the Parking Department at City Hall. His tiny office is the epicenter of the citys ticket-writing program. This last fiscal year they pulled in about $600,000. Peter Skaza is in his 50s, perhaps, a soft-spoken man with air of resignation about him. He does a thankless job. He is the Parking Division Manager for the City of Northampton and is in charge of enforcement, operations of the parking clerk, the E. John Gare parking garage, and the surface parking lots. He earns $41,000 a year and reports to the new Parking Commission.
You might say, he said with a sigh, that I am the Parking Czar.
I looked around at his office in the city hall annex. Its 15 by 15 feet, if that. Two desks three modest chairs, a door with a frosted panel through which he could be seen dimly. No secretary. Peter Skaza made the decision to institute this new order at the parking garage. He has been getting a fair number of calls from people unhappy with the new order. He hopes that I will get things right. Make clear to people that you can still park at the garage for as long as you like. A week, if you have enough quarters.
I got a hint of what his working life was like by the interruptions we had. Two maintenance staff told him there was no garbage bags left, all the action at the Gay Pride parade had exhausted their supply. He called their supplier in Springfield, ascertained that there were bags in stock, got directions as to how to get there, and gave his men his papal blessing. Later on, one of parking attendants storms in and tells him that her car is filthy. Can she take it to a car wash? She pauses for a minute and there is silence from Mr. Skaza, who vibrates faintly, like a dormant volcano.
Or, she said, Can I bring it over to the shop and get them to do it? She could. Life went on, and would go on.
The Mayor wanted at least a 20 percent budget cut from his budget because of state aid reductions. There were 3 full-time and 8 part-time positions at the garage.
Last year the payroll was $250,000, this year it would be $203,000. Replacing the people with machines would cut his personnel budget about 23 percent every year.
In my heart, he said, and lapsed into silence. He then thought twice about what he was going to say to a reporter, and decided to talk with some passion about the stresses and strains of having a large staff of young people manning the garage. I sensed I was hearing one of real reasons for the change. Machines dont give you grief. His staff of teenagers earned $10 an hour. His main supervisor had worked here about 13 or 14 years, almost since the beginning of the garage. She was tired of all the trouble involved in trying to supervise a big staff made up predominately of high school age workers. Too much turmoil, too many personal problems, people not showing up, or changing the time they are coming in. One afternoon his supervisor got 47 calls from employees with beefs, excuses, and special pleadings.
Skaza takes the positive and hopes I will too. I see my theft level decreasing, says Peter, since we will have traffic enforcement people always in the building. Right now, the person operates the gate, makes change, but cannot be a presence in the upper floors. He expects that there will not be the 5 pm jam at the exit when you have long lines at the gate with people trying to exit.
Its a long shot though, expecting positive copy from this reporter. I do not like change, especially change that replaces people with machines. Parking garages, thanks to their forbidding construction, are not friendly places to hang around in, especially at night. The police crime statistics from the garage are probably not worse than the Citys open lots, where a person doing a smash and grab can get away easier. There has been a little less than one incident a week this year in the Gare garage, most of them not too serious. But anyone that listens to the police scanner knows that not all calls get listed in the computer, and there have been assaults, stolen vehicles and vandalism in the garage.
In any case, even in quiet Northampton, you want to get in and get out. The new regime at the garage is not especially friendly to women shoppers who have children in the car. Theres two-way traffic inside the garage, theres a fair
amount of unaware backing up and now there will be more people, some of them with children, walking back and forth between the cars, looking for the machines. More pedestrians, some of them in blind corners. More possibilities for accidents.
Well, said a philosophical city councilor who is on the new parking commission, lets try it and see if it works. All the old elements are still there, we can go back to the gate if we have too many problems.
We need to remember what the original mission of the garage was. It is there to help make Northampton an attractive destination for shoppers, restaurant and concertgoers. Parking at the Gare costs more money than at surrounding lots, (50 cents an hour versus 15 cents a hour at nearby municipal lots) but you are out of the weather and close to the action. If personnel costs needed to be offset they could have just jacked up the parking rate.
Having traffic enforcement personnel working the Gare giving out tickets doesnt make it user friendly. Having machines that need change without change-making machines doesnt make it easy on consumers. Parking garages are not big income producers, unless they are in mid-town Manhattan, but the Gare Garage has been a big success. Utilization of the Gare Garage has increased substantially over the last six years. For many years parking ticket revenue supported the garage, but the garage bonds are nearly paid off and usage is up. In 2001 the operations there broke even. Three years from now, bond payments will drop dramatically, reaching zero in 2009. A garage that continues to increase its usage will be a real asset to the whole community.
I remember when I was a city councilor many years ago, and the misery that was budget time. All the faithful, long suffering administrators like Skaza would come before us and review with us their pitiful budgets. Preventative maintenance? Hah. Paper clips? Maybe. And wed cut. City government in Northampton is a poor stepchild in an affluent community.
Check out what we are using as our police station. There is quiet resentment, maybe a bit of passive-aggressive behavior among city employees.
Tell them this is just the beginning, said another city councilor to me. Bigger cuts are on the way. So here we have an attitude problem. A city government hit with deep cuts, so it spreads the pain around. Give people tickets for overparking in the parking garage. So what if the small business community gets hurt? Budgets have to be cut. But maybe some fresh thinking ought to be done.
We need people manning the garage, we need to make it more of a friendly gateway to the city. People have questions, they need directions. Sell the machines back to the Swedes. Raise the parking rate, if you need to--50 cents an hour for parking in a covered garage is pretty cheap, I think. Put some kind of public area with brochures and community calendars next to the in/out booths, maybe put in some emergency phones in the upper levels like colleges have on their campus. Monitor usage better. A study done in 2000 by Vanasse Brustlin found that many parkers were turned away by full signs when there was from 25 to 40 or more parking spaces empty. The garages revenue control software evidently needs to better track activity by monthly contract parkers.
Think about hiring seniors to work at the garage and pay them a little more money. Think about selling the air rights up on its empty rooftop. Three more years and the garage will be squarely in the black and pumping money into the treasury.
The roof, said Peter Skaza at one point. You know that no one ever parks on the roof. He and I thought about the roof and its views of the city and the mountains. Its the best view in downtown, which is a not so well kept secret around here. Parties evidently happen up there. We could do something with the roof, said Skaza. His idea was astro-turf and a putting course.
My idea was selling air rights to the Gare and letting someone put a restaurant up there. Northampton with a downtown restaurant with beautiful mountain views, with adjacent covered parking? Its an idea.