PAID OR FREE MUNICIPAL PARKING? Newtown Borough Council hears pros and cons from standing-room-only crowd; kiosk decision could come in early November

Parkeon US, a New Jersey-based company, displayed one of its kiosks, pictured at left, at Monday's council meeting. They said the kiosks would open up parking spaces, decrease traffic congestion and offer value added services to local merchants, including coupon opportunities.

NEWTOWN BOROUGH >> A proposal to turn the borough's municipal lot, located between Washington and Centre avenues, into a paid lot won't be decided until November, at the earliest.

After listening to residents and business owners speak on the issue for more than an hour Monday night at the Chancellor Center, Council President Bob Walker said the councilors will weigh what they heard and discuss the idea again at its November work session and possibly make a decision.

If council moves forward with the plan, it would purchase three self-service kiosks at a cost not to exceed $45,000, with the intention of installing them early next year.

At the outset of the meeting, Walker said the idea of paid parking was brought forward as a potential new revenue stream for the borough to help recoup the $230,000 it paid to replace the lot and to fund ongoing maintenance and repairs to its roads without raising taxes.

“This is not an attempt to balance the borough’s budget,” said Walker. “This is to find an alternative revenue stream so that we can sustain and maintain the infrastructure of the borough. The budget is not in difficult financial straits.”

Right now, Walker said the borough relies on two revenue sources to fund street projects - a tax levied for street improvements, which nets the about $91,000 annually, and liquid fuels, which is money the borough receives from the state from the taxes the state charges at the gasoline pump.

The state money, totaling about $65,000 annually, can only be spent on roads and can’t be used to maintain parking lots, he said.

Between 2005 and 2016, Walker said the borough spent $1.15 million on road infrastructure, maintenance and repairs, which includes the outlay of $230,000 this past spring to replace the main municipal lot, which had fallen into disrepair.

During that time period, Walker said the borough raised taxes twice to fund street improvements.

In 2012, the street improvement fund stood at .265 mills, which generated about $25,000 annually in revenue. In 2013, the council increased the tax to 1.125 mills for a gross revenue of $46,000. And then in 2015, with the municipal lot project coming up in 2016, the council raised it again to 2.125, which now generates $91,000.

“Looking down the road, we have identified $528,714 of future road repairs, maintenance and improvements,” said Walker. “Your borough council has the responsibility to prepare an annual budget to operate the borough. The responsibility causes the council to look at expenses and revenues and to look at alternative ways to fund the expenses of the borough.”

The idea of paid parking, however, didn’t find many supporters in the standing-room-only audience, comprised of business owners, employees, borough and township residents.

Many were there to object to the idea of paid parking fearing it would drive businesses away from State Street, negatively impact the town and impact nearby residential streets with additional vehicles.

“I understand that you have budgetary needs, but if you kill the heart of the borough by creating an incentive not to come here as a consumer, you’re not going to increase revenue, you’re going to kill it,” said borough resident Bill Newell, the owner of the Newtown Hardware House.

He said from a competitive point of view, paid parking would put his store and others at a major disadvantage to nearby competitors with plenty of free parking.

“Everything we provide in the borough can be obtained by another merchant nearby,” he said. “It’s already very difficult to operate a business in this congested area. There are a lot of great reasons why people want to come here, but dealing with another logistical aspect like kiosks, it’s going to create another reason not to come here,” he said.

Andrew Neville, who is employed by Isaac Newton’s and has led the charge against the proposal, assisted in collecting more than 1,500 signatures in less than five days against the idea. He said an additional 1,150 signatures had been collected in an online petition.

“Not only will it drive away business, it will also drive away employees and customers of those businesses,” said Neville.

He cited statistics which he said show that 77.8 percent of shoppers will not come to the borough if they have to pay for parking. “Paid parking will be a deterrent to these shoppers,” he said.

Real estate agent Joe McKernan of South Lincoln Avenue said charging for parking is going to have a negative effect on all the businesses that utilize the lot. “It’s bad for business. It’s bad for real estate values,” he said.

“I voted for all of you who are on council. If these meters go in, I will not vote for any of you ever again,” he said. “You need to turn this down. It puts a bad, bad vibe out to all the people,” he said.

“Our town is so strong. It’s coming back and things are very, very positive. (Property) values are better than they have been since 2006,” he said. “If you do something like this, it’s a slap in the face.”

Not everyone at the meeting was against the idea.

A Newtown Township resident said paid parking would not deter him from patronizing the Newtown Hardware House and the town’s other business establishments.

“For me personally, parking meters are not going to stop me from going to Isaac’s. It’s not going to stop me from going to Ned’s. That machine for $1 is not going to stop me,” he said.

“These gentlemen up here have to make a decision on how to generate revenue in some way,” he said of borough council. “They’re going to have to raise that millage again for the 2500 people who live here every day,” he said. “Are you going to charge the people who live in the borough for those spaces or the people who are going to use those spaces?” he asked.

While sharing the same concerns as many of his fellow business owners, one of the town's largest employers, David Witchell, who operates a highly successful salon and several retail stores on State Street, said paid parking is not necessarily a negative idea for the borough.

“I see this, if it’s done properly and if it’s done with a very thorough consideration, as having a positive impact on the community because it can put people where they belong for the length of time they belong there,” he said. “I don’t see this as a 100 percent negative idea. I actually find a lot of positives.”

Among the positives, said Witchell, is the possibility that a portion of the money collected from the kiosks could be set aside to make the town look more attractive, which he said will encourage people to come here.

With that said, Witchell said he doesn’t like the appearance of the kiosks, which he said are not in keeping with the historic community. “It needs to look like it fits in town,” he said. “It’s a little scary to look at.”

Witchell said he also doesn’t agree with the $1 an hour fee, believing it should be lower. The $1 fee was mentioned as a possibility by council at its October work session.

“This is a big scary monster for everybody because it’s new, it’s different, it’s a brand new way of thinking,” said Witchell. “But the town needs a way to grow and to get better and improve itself. This potentially, if it’s done properly, could do good things for the community.”

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