“We need the tax revenue.”
“Borough finances are in dire straits.”
These are answers borough council members gave when we asked why they approved a conditional use permit for a development that a large and vocal majority of the community had opposed.
Sewickley borough taxes are higher than any of our neighbors – almost 50% higher. We have excellent police, fire, and other services – but are they 50% better?
What have our elected and appointed officials done since that meeting in November, 2016, to restore our financial health?
Recently, they began aggressively collecting a “business privilege” tax from local business owners.
This tax has been on the books for decades, but for reasons we don’t understand- yet – has been uncollected or randomly collected. It’s not clear whether the new regimen of vigorous enforcement will be a net positive for the borough.
Before that, though, there was parking. Sewickley, unlike most of its neighbors, has parking revenue.
In 2016, our mayor and council members formed a new bureaucratic structure – The Parking Authority. The borough manager, Kevin Flannery (since retired) was tasked with drafting an operating agreement between the Borough and the Authority.
This new authority moved with remarkable speed. They eliminated parking meters and installed fancy new parking stations, which cost close to $500,000.
At a meeting in 2017, Authority members laughed together with the borough manager when he declared that lots of people wanted to buy the poor old meter heads – some wished to make lamps with them!
The sprint to demolish the old system and replace it has now settled into an ultra-marathon of unhappy daily encounters. It is not news that the new parking stations are loathed. Residents, business owners, employees, and visitors all vent their frustrations with the inconvenience and frequent breakdowns of the new system.
But maybe the pain is worth it. Has the change helped our bottom line?
Borough council President Jeff Neff told the Sewickley Gazette that in 2016 and 2017, the Parking Authority paid the borough $12,000-12,500 per month to lease parking spaces on borough property. In 2018, the payments stopped.
When council members questioned this, they learned that there was no operating agreement in place between the borough and the Authority. Former management just hadn’t drafted one, and neither Authority members nor council members “noticed.”
Neff told us, “ there was some discussion. Shortly after, all five members of the Parking Authority resigned.”
Neff praised the new Parking Authority members, led by Richard Webb, saying “Rich Webb has done a great job. The new authority is really on board, to generate as much revenue as possible.”
In 2019, payments from the authority to the borough resumed: starting at $10,000 per month, and recently increased to $15,000 per month. Neff said the added $5,000 will go towards the salary of the new assistant borough manager, who will be performing administrative duties for the Parking Authority.
If we understand this, then, the net revenue to the borough is about $120,000.
We asked Neff what the borough’s net revenue from parking was in the days of the old parking meters. He said it was “definitely in the $200,000 range.
Richard Webb told the Gazette that parking “definitely used to yield substantially more revenue to the borough.” He gave a guided tour of the history of the Parking Authority, 2016-the present; it’s detailed, and telling history.
According to Webb, the previous Parking Authority was created to build a parking garage. Rather than maintain or improve revenues to the borough, the authority “wanted to retain all of the parking revenues in order to develop assets.” When council complained that this was “starving” the borough of needed money, Authority members Brian Jeffe and Tom DeFazio explained that they needed the money to build a garage. Beyond that, their first draft operating agreement including the donation of borough parking lot land to the Authority.
Council declined to make that donation.
Webb believes that Council Members “didn’t fully have a grip” on how badly the new parking stations were performing, in part because Authority members declared that everything had been fixed.
“That was entirely wrong,” said Webb. “The parking machines are still dreadful.”
Webb also described how the new Parking Authority is also trying to deal with the legacy of “two decades of non-enforcement” of the off-street parking requirements for commercial property in borough codes. There are new commercial buildings in Sewickley, according to Webb, with code-mandated requirements for 20 off-street spaces that received occupancy permits from borough officials – despite having no off-street parking at all. He also cited restaurants in the village who have no parking – despite the code requirement.
Adding to this, Webb said that in the 2011 “rush to approve revisions to the borough code, the borough somehow ‘forgot’ to include any requirements for retail spaces under 7,000 square feet to have off-street parking. He said the village has more than 85 such retail establishments.
The result: “employees, customers, visitors, and residents are all in competition for parking.”
Webb believes that the solution going forward is for the Borough to enforce relevant parking codes, but only if there is a private-public partnership that will build a garage. That garage would need to dedicate 60% of available spaces to monthly leases.
“There has been debate Parking Authority,” Webb added, “about whether we should just go back to ‘Marge and the quarters’ – we’d definitely be making more money.”
That is – remove the stations, and bring back the old meters.
Apparently not all of them have been converted to table lamps.
Article by Anne Clarke-Ronce – Editor