BRATTLEBORO—The Selectboard unanimously approved the Fiscal Year 2019 parking fund budget at the June 5 meeting, but what remains to be seen is the future of parking — and how people will pay for it — in Brattleboro.
On May 1, Andy Hill of Desman Design Management appeared at a Selectboard meeting to discuss the results of the parking study his firm conducted, which the town paid for.
Part of the study included a survey of residents and visitors who come to town to dine, shop, and seek entertainment.
Hill said that among the 800 verified survey participants, a common complaint is that the town’s parking meters only take coins. They want to pay using credit and debit cards, he said.
Hill suggested the town research updated meters, with a strong recommendation for central kiosks that will accept cash and plastic as payment.
What the survey-takers didn’t want, according to Hill, was an “app.”
“There’s not so much interest in smartphone payment,” he said.
But that didn’t stop municipal staff from researching the option and debating it at the June 5 Selectboard meeting.
’Worthy of consideration’
Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland extolled the virtues of the parking app, and noted “it was worthy of consideration.”
“There’s no up-front cost to the town” for implementing the app, he said. Installing kiosks could cost the town $83,000, which might necessitate borrowing from the utility fund, borrowing from outside lenders, or raising parking fees.
The town’s parking fund is self-supporting, and infrastructure and parking staff salaries are paid for through things like parking tickets, coins, and dollars collected in meters, permits, and rent at the Transportation Center.
But, as Hill said during the May 1 parking study presentation, the town has options for funding the upgraded parking meters or kiosks other than outright purchase, including leasing and revenue-sharing.
So, how did smartphone apps go from “not so much interest” to the topic of lengthy debate at the June 5 Selectboard meeting?
Moreland told Board members Stephanie Bonin wants a smartphone parking app. She confirmed this at the meeting.
Bonin is the co-owner of the restaurant Duo. She is also the executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, a nonprofit organization that operates the downtown improvement district.
The Alliance receives the bulk of its funding through an assessment levied on downtown property owners, and none of its Board or staff are elected by the general public into these positions.
Moreland said he also spoke with “reps who sell the service,” and officials with towns that currently use it. He learned that those officials are happy with the program, and ended up not adding credit or debit card machines to their parking meter options. “They found [the app] to be a complete solution,” Moreland said.
Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor wasn’t entirely sold on the idea.
Referencing her day job as head of the town’s Chamber of Commerce, O’Connor said, “I haven’t kept track of the numbers [...] but we have people come in to our Chamber complaining that they get no cell service downtown.”
She noted AT&T and T-Mobile as particularly troublesome.
Board member Shanta Lee Gander questioned the merits of forcing people to park using a smartphone app. She described downtown cellular service as “spotty.” She also noted some people don’t have cell phones or smartphones, or they don’t have a data plan to support using an app.
Some Selectboard members were in favor of a smorgasbord approach. Brandie Starr suggested the Town Manager staff research having all three options: coins and paper money, updated kiosks that take credit and debit cards, and a smartphone parking app.
Town Manager Peter B. Elwell echoed Starr’s statement and reminded the Selectboard “it’s not an either/or proposition.” He said his staff still has the research they conducted on the kiosks, and installing them could require a parking rate increase, or borrowing.
Elwell said that once the Selectboard decides on its priorities and guides town staff, they can bring back more complete details.
Board members Tim Wessel and David Schoales spoke in favor of the app, noting the town could save $83,000 by not purchasing kiosks.
O’Connor countered their enthusiasm — and tried to learn more about Moreland’s research — with a question. When Moreland spoke with officials in other municipalities and received positive reviews, “What towns did you talk to?” O’Connor asked. Nobody responded to O’Connor’s query.
When Wessel expressed his doubts about downtown’s poor cellphone reception, Starr and O’Connor assured them the problem is real, and agreed relying on an app for parking is troublesome.
Starr noted her clients’ calls frequently “get dropped.” O’Connor reiterated the complaints from her patrons: “We have people come into the Chamber all the time and scream at us: ‘My cellphone doesn’t work!’”
Data dead zones?
Brattleboro resident Dora Bouboulis noted that for visitors relying on a cellphone app to track their parking status and remotely pay for more time on the meter, they need access to the data component of their phones. In many buildings downtown, especially those without their own wireless system for guests, this is impossible, because the spaces are dead zones for data.
Bonin responded to the issue of poor cellular and data service by noting the vendor of the app assured her that poor reception wouldn’t affect service. “We did look into it with the company and the signal that an app would need is far less than what a phone call needs, or data needs,” Bonin said.
Bouboulis said she is normally against big municipal expenditures and borrowing. But, “even though it’s a big expense,” she said she supports upgrading the town’s meters, especially if it will make the meters and kiosks consistent across the entire parking system.
Bonin didn’t agree with the need to spend town money, and said she likes to “save money.”
She compared the town installing new kiosks to take credit and debit cards, and using a smartphone parking app, to “having chicken and ham for dinner. It’s not really necessary.”
Although the town-funded study and survey indicated a strong need for upgraded parking meters, not installing them is a “gift,” said Bonin, because the town can “change our entire parking system with no money, with no debt.”
She characterized keeping the current parking meters and adding only a smartphone parking app as “inclusive, because for many years, this town has only had cash.” Bonin noted a smartphone app offers a credit card option.
Gander said she doesn’t want to implement a plan “that leaves out a lot of the population."
In analyzing the issue, Gander asked her colleagues to consider “going back to the question: Who is Brattleboro for?”
During the presentation, a few items were left out of the discussion, such as the name of the vendor, security issues, up-front costs to the vendor, and whether the app is open-source, which could present a problem for the town if the vendor ceases operations.
In a follow-up email with The Commons, Moreland shared what he learned about the Charlotte, N.C.-based parking app vendor, Passport. He noted that cities such as Miami, Chicago, and Detroit use Passport’s app.
Regarding security, Passport’s website, passportinc.com, says, “We are PCI DSS Level 1 Certified, the most demanding level of certification, and SSAE-16 Type 2 Accredited. In addition, Passport is listed on the MasterCard Service Provider Compliant list as well as the Visa Global Registry of Service Providers.”
“There are zero equipment or upfront costs,” Moreland said. Each Passport transaction includes a “convenience fee” of 15 cents, “which is typically paid by the person parking, but a lot depends on how the system is implemented by the town,” he said.
Additionally, the town will have to pay for credit card processing fees, “that would likely be the same as any of our other credit card processing fees,” Moreland said.
The app doesn’t seem to be open-source. When asked what happens if Passport closes or the town wants to switch vendors, Moreland said, “I don’t know what will happen if they go out of business.”
Moreland made it clear that the decision on what to do about the future of parking in Brattleboro is far from a done deal.
At the June 5 meeting, he said that “my only purpose was to find out what the Selectboard wanted to achieve. The decision for how we are to proceed is up to them.”
“It’s fine if they want smart meters and its fine if they want a parking app, and it’s also fine if they want both, or neither. Staff’s job is to make recommendations about how best to implement what the Board seeks to achieve,” Moreland said.
“[The] Board asked to see a plan for the cost of implementing everything, including: smart meters, smart kiosks, parking apps, bike racks, etc.,” Moreland said. “This could cost a lot, but that will give [them] some additional information, and I know that eventually they will come together around a chosen end result.”