By Chris Teale (File photo)
At 1,548 pages long, Alexandria’s City Charter is a vast tome of a document that outlines how the city should be governed. The Alexandria Chamber of Commerce asserts the city is not in compliance with a section of the document that regulates the use of money from parking meters.
The passage in question is in Section 2.03 — labeled “Powers relating to public works, utilities and properties.” In subsection x, it reads: “With the use of parking meters, to assess charges for the privilege of parking on designated public streets and to use the revenues derived therefrom for any public purpose incident to the acquisition, maintenance or provision of places for the parking and storage of vehicles by the public at any location in the city.”
The chamber alleges the city is in violation of that provision, which dates back to the 1970s, as it does not specifically spend money earned from parking meters and parking lots on parking improvements, instead funnelling it into the general fund. A remedy to this inconsistency is suggested in the chamber’s 2016 legislative agenda.
“The city has been very helpful in addressing some of the ongoing challenges with parking,” said Dak Hardwick, chairman of the chamber’s government relations committee. “We have been very appreciative of their efforts to date. This is just another example of trying to make it easier for business owners and for residents to park in the highest used areas of the city.
“We certainly look forward to working with the city to be able to find a positive way forward in this regard.”
The chamber’s stance is that the city should either amend its charter or amend the budget process. It contends this would make things far easier for residents and business owners, and help ease congestion on the roads.
“Parking in Alexandria will always be something that needs to be closely managed,” Hardwick added. “The chamber wants to ensure that the city understands that the parking revenues will go back into making it easier for folks to park in Alexandria in order to facilitate getting off our roads. We want them to shop, we want them to dine, and the easiest
way for them to do it is to understand the ease of parking.”
But city spokesman Craig Fifer said the budget process is far more nuanced than the chamber suggests. When it comes to parking revenues and expenditures, he said the city spends far more than it takes in, and the numbers bear that assertion out.
In fiscal 2015, the city collected approximately $3,961,700 in revenue from parking meters, and spent a total of $4,280,481 on parking enforcement and maintenance. That doesn’t include paving and road resurfacing efforts, which Fifer said adds “millions more” to expenditures, meaning money needs to come from other revenue sources to make up the shortfall.
“The goal of the budget process is to allocate the right amount of money to each expenditure, regardless of whether that particular expenditure produced enough revenue to pay for it or any revenue at all,” Fifer said. “You could say that you’re allocating the parking revenue to parking, but then we would either have too much money or not enough money for parking, and we would fill in as needed with revenue from other places.
“In many cases where there is an allocation of revenue, the cost of the service exceeds the revenue anyway, so it’s sort of semantics as to where the money came from.”
Fifer said the city collects an additional $3,782,508 from parking tickets and residential permits, for a total of $7,744,208 in parking-related revenues.
City Councilor Justin Wilson believes that section of the charter contains more permissive language than the chamber suggests, although it perhaps is in need of a polish. He also cited the Dillon Rule, which prevents Virginia localities from exercising powers not granted by the state, arguing the provision could be read as simply ensuring that the city has the power to provide public parking and to charge for it.
“Just street paving alone, which is the maintenance of a place to park vehicles, we spend well north of what we bring in,” Wilson said. “I think that’s the way [the charter] is satisfied, and then you’ve got meter maintenance, the staffing of parking enforcement, parking maintenance, anything related to that stuff.
“The bottom line here is, I believe just in a couple of categories we spend well north of the amount we bring in parking revenue on maintenance of public parking in the city.”
Unfortunately, updating the language in the city charter requires the passage of a bill in the General Assembly in Richmond, an arduous process. It starts with Bernie Caton, the city’s legislative director, asking every city councilor, department, board and commission for recommendations for code changes. Caton combines them and sends them to city council for approval.
Then, the package of changes is presented to the General Assembly delegation, which helps ensure its passage at the state legislature, a task that can be easier said than done.
“It’s kind of a pain,” said Wilson. “This is not something they probably care about. Typically what we do, and we just did it last year, is when we need a charter change, we will package a bunch of charter changes together periodically and go to the General Assembly and offer nine or 10 changes we’d like to clean up in our charter.
“This [subsection] could be something we could put on the list of a cleanup. I don’t think we have a problem with compliance with it, even if you read it in the most literal sense. I think we pass the test, I would argue pretty strenuously.”