CAROLINA BEACH — The parking debate accelerated in Carolina Beach Tuesday night, both among the public and town council. After two failed motions, council voted 3-2 to make streetside metered parking free during the offseason, starting the first of December through the end of February.
A two-hour public-comment period set the precedent, with voices speaking for and against new parking measures that Carolina Beach’s old guard voted on last fall in a workshop meeting. Then-mayor LeAnn Pierce and outgoing council member JoDan Garza voted against the measure; current Mayor Lynn Barbee (then a council member), current council member Jay Healy and former council member Steve Shuttleworth voted in favor of the plan.
“I wanted this on the agenda because you all need to come during a regular council meeting and discuss it,” former mayor and current council member Joe Benson said to the packed house and council members Tuesday.
Pivot Parking’s plan includes CB visitors pay an offseason rate of $2 per hour and $10 per day, enforced between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Hours extend until 8 p.m. during summer, and rates increase to $5 per hour or $25 per day from March through November.
Pivot Parking suggested the town double its citation fees to $100. The company issued a million dollars in citations over eight months in Wrightsville, according to council. “I gotta think we can do better than we did last year with $142,000,” Benson said about CB’s citation revenue.
During last year’s parking season, March through October, Carolina Beach meters collected $664,000 in revenue, according to previous PCD reporting. Its 21 parking lots netted $1.4 million.
Part of the new strategy includes council regulating private lots, requiring better landscaping, trash receptacles and signage; the owners were given a deadline of two years to fall in line. Still, it won’t necessarily change the prices, some of which charged $45 a day to park last season, as compared to the town-owned lots, priced at $20 a day.
As well, year-round parking passes are available to island property owners, while nonresidential passes are no longer available for purchase — a sticking point for many who frequent the island but don’t pay property taxes there.
Last fall, council staff estimated Pivot’s plan will provide new net revenue of $64,000 and recommended council move forward with the contract. Loss of parking funds during Covid-19 hurt the bottom line of the 2.7-mile beach town.
Mayor Pro Tem Jay Healy mentioned, when accounting for inflation, the town needed $1.2 million in additional revenue just to break even from its current deficit.
Bringing back nonresidential passes
Council chambers were crowded as speakers were called one-by-one to take the mic, most there to contest the parking plan. Some decried the lack of paid passes available to non-residents, while business owners on the island held strong in their beliefs that making customers pay for parking during the offseason would effectively hurt the bottom line.
“We struggle so badly during those four months,” Hang Ten Grill owner Jeff Hogan spoke of winter on the island. “We’re staying open to keep our staff employed — and, you know, if we lose 10%, 20% [because of paid parking], I think you’re gonna see most of us close.”
Many off-island community members — who live only minutes north or south but visit Carolina Beach for necessities, from grocery shopping to taking kids to school on the island — were upset their imprint on the community wasn’t being considered fairly.
“I don’t think by living 30 seconds over the bridge, I should be treated like a tourist,” Ben Richardson said during public comment. “The fact that tourists have to buy a weekly pass for $100 a week and I would have to do the same kind of feels insulting. At the same time, I’m not opposed to year-round parking, as long as people who are New Hanover County residents have an option to purchase a pass. I’m not even opposed to paying more money for a season pass if that helps to cover that deficit that currently exists.”
Councilor Benson first introduced a motion to amend the parking measures, specifically with the reinstatement of $250 nonresidential parking passes. Last year, the town sold 500, according to council member Deb LeCompte.
However, the reinstatement would bear caveats: Passes, to be purchased in person only during the month of April, would not be applicable on weekends, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m., or holidays starting the Saturday before Memorial Day through Labor Day.
LeCompte amended the motion to adjust the fee structure from $250 to $365. She based it on the amount of taxes she said residents who owned an average-priced $500,000 home would pay if Carolina Beach borrowed $30 million for its infrastructure needs, a platform she ran on last year to get her council seat.
“That’s $1 a day or two weeks paying a full rate of $25,” she said.
Healy adamantly was against the motion. Instead, he preferred to rely on the opinion of Pivot.
“Our parking company recommends we don’t do it,” the mayor pro tem said. “Because they firmly believe we will lose revenue. I can give you some examples: If we have a local brewery in town and they would sell a pass for $150 for all the beer you can drink, will they make money? No. A seafood place: $300, all the crab legs you can eat. Sounds pretty good, right? I’d buy it — but, no, they wouldn’t make money. So there’s a reason we went with a professional parking company to make these decisions … They do it for a living. They have a footprint. They made almost $6 million for Wrightsville — revenue that Wrightsville can use to improve their town. And that’s what we’re looking to do.”
The debate oscillated between nonresidential passes back to offseason parking remaining free to visitors. Healy suggested that dropping rates altogether during late fall and early winter months would result in money the town is willingly walking away from.
“And the bottom line is, we need money,” he said.
DeLompte remained firm that the $64,000 the town stands to gain would be a “drop in bucket” compared to the money Carolina Beach needs to fund improvements.
“We discontinued guaranteed revenue with the nonresident passes,” she retorted to Healy. “We walked away from $114,000 for $64,000.”
“This is probably the most financially reckless conversation I’ve ever heard in my life,” Mayor Barbee said. “Let me put that in some context for you: First off, the goal here was not $64,000 … the goal was to find a million dollars.
“These were the things that a professional parking company recommended to us to get the million dollars,” he added.
The mayor challenged council as to whether anyone asked Pivot if their system could handle specifications that Benson suggested for nonresidential passes, such as not allowing its use on holidays during peak season.
“The motion here is to implement an hourly base, seasonal weekends,” the mayor iterated, “and not a single soul sitting up here knows whether their system can do that. … Any of you know the answer? I’ll answer it for you, I’ll save you the time. Their system will not do this. So if we pass it, good luck, but we’ll see what they can do.”
Aside from the technical obstacles, the mayor also noted any decision to drop paid parking in the offseason would cut into fiscal year 2023. Shearing revenue before a budget forecast was even in place, he indicated, wasn’t a good move — especially considering the needs of the community a year from now are unknown.
“You don’t even know what your expenses are going to look like,” he added. “I’ll tell you how I’m going to vote right now — with this man right over here.”
Barbee pointed to town manager Bruce Oakley.
“We hired him two years ago and he has turned this place around,” the mayor said. “We have seen our fund balance grow. I have 110% confidence in him and his staff.”
Oakley maintained he and staff still recommended Pivot’s parking plan in full.
The motion to reinstate nonresidential parking passes failed 3-2.
Free parking vs. bagging the meters
LeCompte steered the conversation away from passes and into free parking across Carolina Beach. She made a motion to drop rates the first two months of the year, something she said Mayor Barbee recently suggested at a council workshop.
“We have signed agreements on the private lots we lease. All of them expire on December 31, 2022 at midnight. So I would like to make a motion that January and February of 2023 will be free,” LeCompte said.
“Let me think about it for a second,” council member Mike Hoffer said. “I’m having internal discussions.”
“If our lots are free and the private lots decided to charge, it’s a good possibility we’ll lose the leased lot,” Healy said.
“We’re gonna lose the leased lots anyway,” LeCompte said. “Because, eventually, they’re going to be developed.”
Hoffer maintained lots should remain paid, especially since many come with amenities — showers and bathrooms — the town covers. Instead, he interjected with an idea he said he posted in a 1,600-word blog on his website Mar. 7: bagging metered spaces only.
Ron Stevens, owner of Lake Park Steakhouse, came to the meeting to speak out against roadside and metered parking. He said keeping customers coming from Kure Beach and Monkey Junction is important and paid metered parking will impede their return.
“Today, almost every restaurant on the island has at least one week or one day a week or two days a week where they offer half price wine, half-price bar,” Stevens said. “That’s the only way to get people across the bridge and get them here. And now we’re telling them don’t come; we’re gonna charge you out of this space. It’s not fair. They’re part of our community and they pay for everything we do here.”
Hoffer touted his motion to bag the meters as a reasonable ask: “It’s the least impactful — but, at the same time, offers something for our friends in the winter and something for our downtown business owners who are admittedly and understandably worried about winter.”
The mayor brought everyone back to the motion on the floor: free parking across the board in January and February. It failed in a 3-2 vote.
“Alright, so let’s try my motion,” Hoffer said. “My motion is to make streetside parking meters free from Dec. 1 through Mar. 31.”
“I really do not understand why we’re up here talking about ways to lose revenue,” Healy said. “Let’s just say it’s $50,000. Who knows? I mean, that’s a position — a pay increase for somebody … when we get to the end of the budgeting process next year, and we have to make cuts, it’s on you guys.”
“OK, I can accept that,” LeCompte said.
LeCompte added her vote was going to be a voice for constituents she represents — neighbors who pay taxes on the island and the people off the island who visit year-round yet support activities, businesses and fundraisers. She also noted they were the same people who didn’t necessarily have a voice during Covid-19 when council meetings went virtual or when votes on parking changes were made during workshops.
“We’re responsible for their dollars, but we’re also responsible for the heart of this town,” she said.
“Let’s just be clear that we are allowed to make decisions at a workshop,” Healy explained earlier in the evening. “And the reason that we made a decision is it was a time-sensitive issue.”
Mayor Barbee wasn’t keen on Hoffer’s proposal, explaining the town took in $25,000 in meters last weekend — and at a time when technical difficulties plagued Pivot’s newly installed system. Credit cards weren’t being accepted and several pay stations were down from damages, the mayor said.
“Mike’s proposal says let’s make all the streetside parking free in March,” Barbee said. “I cannot turn away that kind of revenue in March.”
Hoffer rescinded his motion and put forth a new one to bag the meters from Dec. 1 through Feb. 28 (or 29 during leap years), starting at the end of 2022 — not including text-to-park spaces.
It passed 3-2; Hoffer, LeCompte and Benson voted for, while Healy and Barbee were the dissenting votes.
“By the way, I’m trying to open this up again next month,” Hoffer forewarned.
Council’s next meeting is slated for Apr. 13.
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