Op-Ed: Official reserved parking spaces an outmoded perk

By FRANK GORDON

In early December, David Martin, the mayor of Stamford, Conn., announced the elimination of all official reserved parking spaces on the ground floor of the parking garage for the government center, Stamford’s City Hall. Prior to this change, 20 spaces had been reserved for municipal government officials on the first floor of the garage.

The spaces became open to the general public.

As part of the change, 10 parking spaces were reserved for government officials on the second floor of the parking garage. In total, the number of parking spaces reserved for government officials was reduced from 25 to 10. Officials now face a marginally longer commute to City Hall, from the second floor of the garage as opposed to the first.

“It is time that we create more space in City Hall for the people of Stamford. Hundreds of residents visit the government center on a daily basis to take advantage of critical services offered here and they should be given as direct access as possible,” Martin said. “This is a first step towards making city government more citizen-friendly and accessible to the residents it serves; they come first.”

Mayor Martin was right to reduce and relocate official reserved parking spaces in parking Stamford City Hall’s prime parking location, although I don’t think he went far enough.

Reserved parking spaces are a relic from a bygone era; they have no place in a more enlightened age such as ours. They create an artificial distinction between municipal officials and taxpayers, putting the interests of municipal officials first. They insulate officials from the effects of parking shortages that would otherwise be in residents’ best interests to address. Furthermore, reserved parking spaces are wasteful, sitting vacant while officials are on vacation or otherwise away from Town Hall. Finally, reserved parking spaces raise thorny issues about who is entitled to such spaces.

The Town of Harrison would be wise to follow Mayor Martin’s example by eliminating reserved parking spaces for municipal officials. In the parking lot directly behind the Alfred F. Sulla, Jr. Municipal Building at 1 Heineman Pl., which is Harrison’s Town Hall, the town has 45 parking spaces reserved for official use. The reserved spaces are the most convenient ones, that is, those nearest Town Hall. The officials or organizations for whom spaces are reserved are:

• Director of Community Services

• Town Clerk

• Receiver of Taxes

• Court Clerk

• Justices

• Town Attorney (3)

• Community Services

• Comptroller

• Commissioner of Public Works

• Town Engineer

• Superintendant of Recreation

• Assessor

• Personnel Department

• Department of Public Works

• Code Enforcement

• Assistant Building and

• Plumbing Inspector

• Building Department (2)

• Building Inspector

• Engineering Department

• Fire Inspector

• Official Parking–user unspecified (16)

• Official Parking–user unspecified, disabled/handicapped (3)

• HHS Band Parents

• LMK Middle School

• Harrison Children’s Center

These official reserved spaces account for 13 percent of the lot’s 356-space capacity.

The remaining spaces in the lot are available for use by commuters with town-issued commuter parking permits at a cost of $600 annually.

Harrison’s reserved parking arrangements create an artificial distinction between town officials and taxpayers. The grant of Town Hall’s choicest parking spaces to municipal officials and employees creates the impression that these individuals are entitled to better treatment than the average taxpayer, that these individuals are a notch above the average Joe or Jane.

Obviously, these municipal bigwigs deserve the most convenient parking spaces because the services they perform are so vital and time critical to the town’s functioning. Although I’m sure this impression is unintended, residents can hardly draw any other conclusion. Town officials may argue that the reserved spaces allow town employees to arrive at their desks promptly, thus saving precious time to work on town matters for the benefit of residents, time that would otherwise have been spent searching for a parking space. But this is no different from the situation faced by the average taxpayer, who must take into account that he or she may have difficulty finding parking and leave home a little earlier to allow for that.

The cost difference between a reserved parking space for a town official and an unreserved parking space for a resident furthers the impression of an artificial separation between these persons.

Town officials pay nothing for a reserved parking space, other than Harrison taxes if they happen to be a town resident. Commuters who park in unreserved spaces in the town lot, on the other hand, must be residents and therefore Harrison taxpayers, and must also pay $600 for an annual parking permit. It doesn’t seem equitable that a town employee who receives a reserved parking space as a cost-free perk gets priority over a commuter who makes substantial outlays for taxes and a parking permit.

Another problem with reserved parking spaces is that they insulate officials from the inconvenience of parking shortages that would otherwise be in residents’ best interests to address.

Harrison, like other neighboring towns, has a commuter parking shortage. Demand for commuter parking in Harrison far exceeds supply. The primary commuter lot behind the Town Hall building contains 356 parking spaces. Subtracting the 45 spaces reserved for town use leaves 311 available for commuters. An additional 36 spaces are available in the town’s secondary commuter lot at the intersection of Purdy Street and Park Avenue, but that lot is a five-minute walk from Town Hall and the Harrison train station. Few commuters park in the Purdy Street lot because of this inconvenience and the town has not offered any financial incentives for commuters to do so. To get a realistic picture of the current state of Harrison commuter parking, we should set aside the 36 spaces in the secondary lot until commuters actually use them.

As of Dec. 31, 2013, the town sold 465 parking permits, which is 154 more than, or 150 percent of, the 311 available unreserved spaces in the primary commuter lot. This overselling of permits compared to available spaces might seem to portend daily parking riots, with commuters scrambling for scarce spaces. Further surveys are needed, but recent daily counts show that, as one would expect, on some days the primary lot is filled to capacity. Perhaps surprisingly, on other days up to 80 unreserved spaces remain available.

In any case, reserved parking spaces prevent town officials from experiencing the parking shortages faced by residents. Officials do not have to face the extended searches for a parking space that town residents endure several times a week. Having not had to suffer the effects of the parking shortage, officials remain blissfully ignorant of, and have little incentive to, alleviate it.

A further issue with reserved parking spaces is that they often go unused.

Recent daily counts in the town’s primary lot indicate that on any given day, about one-third of the lot’s 45 official reserved spaces remain vacant. Those roughly 15 spaces could have been used by commuters. Parking consultants say that a 10 percent vacancy rate is a desirable benchmark for public parking lots—it allows sufficient slack for high volume occasions and reduces the chances of having to turn away prospective customers.

A vacancy rate of one-third may indicate that the town is reserving too many spaces for official use.

The final problem with reserved parking spaces is that they raise thorny issues about who is entitled to such spaces. Harrison’s approach, with 45 reserved spaces, seems to be that every person employed in Town Hall is entitled to a space, and then some. Other municipalities seem to take a more limited approach. Before the recent change in its official parking policy described above, Stamford provided 20 reserved spaces in total to the following officials or organizations:

• Mayor (2)

• Executive Aide

• Economic Development

• Director

• Town Clerk

• Director of Legal Affairs

• Director of Administration

• Director of Operations

• Director of Public Safety

• Technology Office

• Print Shop

• Director of Human Resources

• Congressman Jim Himes’ Office (2)

• Board of Representatives (2)

• Registrar of Voters (2)

• Superintendent of Schools

• Health Director

That a city the size of Stamford—2010 population: 122,643—needed only 20 official reserved spaces at City Hall versus 45 for a town the size of Harrison—27,472—suggests that the latter may have let things go too far.

I propose the following changes to address the shortcomings of Harrison’s current policy with regard to official reserved spaces in the primary commuter lot behind Town Hall:

First, eliminate all official reserved parking spaces in the lot except for the existing disabled/handicapped reserved spaces. This will free up 42 spots for use by all commuters. Town officials and employees will be able to park on the same basis as any other commuter; namely, employee parking permits will allow them to park anywhere in the primary or secondary commuter lot on an as-available basis.

Second, short of eliminating all official reserved parking spaces, immediately eliminate the 16 Official Parking, user unspecified spaces and review the remaining reserved spaces using a standard such as “personnel essential to the functioning of town government in case of emergency” to eliminate half or more of the remaining reserved spaces over time.

Third, to reduce waste, after a certain time of day, say 10 a.m., make unoccupied official reserved parking spaces available to all commuters.

Fourth, perhaps in addition to or in place of the above, make the Purdy Street lot the designated lot for town officials and employees where they alone would be allowed to park. This would involve some inconvenience to these persons in the form of a five-minute walk to Town Hall but is no more than other Harrison commuters currently face.

Fifth, above all, in instituting the foregoing, be guided by the principle that town residents come first.

Frank Gordon is a Harrison resident. The views expressed are his.