Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Killing The Goose?

The downtown parking issue here in Athens presents an excellent case study, microcosmic though it may be, of the tension between government’s unending quest for more revenue and the consumer’s willingness to foot the bill. And no, that is not meant as an imputation of our local elected officials – it is just the nature of the beast.

At its most recent voting session (see agenda item 17), the Commission overhauled on-street parking fees and fines as they pertain to the downtown business district:

• Increased the hourly rate from 25¢ to 50¢
• Increased the fine for an expired meter from $3 to $10
• Increased the fine for “feeding” an expired meter from $5 to $15
• Limited metered parking to one hour on a number of streets (East Broad, East Clayton, North Lumpkin, and College Avenue)
• Extended metered parking from 6:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m.

The problem is that some of these measures dramatically exceed the recommendations made by the Athens Downtown Development Authority, which manages parking in the area. As a result, the ADDA is circulating a petition among downtown business owners calling on the Commission to scale back the expired meter fine from $10 to $6 and the “feeding” fine from $15 to $12, as the ADDA originally recommended. It also supports a uniform 2-hourt limit on all metered parking

My concerns are not so much about parking rates and fines – by general consensus rate and fine hikes were overdue – but about other, more philosophical and, I daresay, more important issues. One is the unfortunate habit the Commission has of legislating on the fly and the other is the lack of understanding government exhibits about people changing their behavior in response to tax policy (or fee and fine policy as is the case here).

Regarding the first, I am not arguing that the Commission should approve without question whatever recommendations come before it. On the other hand, though, to exceed the ADDA recommendations by such wide margins, the Commission renders any such recommendations moot, not to mention any deliberations made during the Commission’s own previous work and agenda sessions. Why should folks spend the time and effort developing carefully reasoned proposals just to have the Commission summarily reject them? And this is far from the first time this has happened; remember the essentially pointless deliberations of the Multifamily Housing Committee and the Stormwater Advisory Committee?

The second has to do with the law of unintended consequences, which forms the basis of the ADDA petition. Many locals do not even consider venturing downtown in the first place due to a combination of concerns as to traffic delays, the lack of convenient parking, and the ever-present threat of being accosted for money by our ubiquitous “urban outdoorsmen” (yes, that is a Boortzism). So, in a move designed to generate a little more revenue, the Commission is going to add to the cost of doing business downtown and simultaneously decrease the amount of time available to conduct such business.

Regardless of the specific amount of money involved, is the projected increase in revenue adequate to offset the potential decrease in economic activity? Will consumers continue to come downtown during regular business hours, or will they vote with their feet by taking their business out to the Georgia Square Mall area or the burgeoning commercial corridor just across the Oconee County line on Epps Bridge Parkway?

These are not merely academic questions. Unfortunately, governments typically base their revenue projections on a static model – if tax rate X generates revenue Y, doubling the rate to 2X will yield revenue of 2Y – without the acknowledgement that consumers can and will alter their behaviors in direct response to changes in tax policy. Needless to say, the folks at City Hall, underneath the Gold Dome, and inside the Beltway would all do well to recognize this reality.

Heck, even
Michael Bloomberg, hardly a model of fiscal restraint, has figured this one out.

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