Ham. Co. taxpayers subsidizing downtown parking

Over the next seven years Hamilton County taxpayers will pay $12.3 million to subsidize parking in county-owned lots along the riverfront.
That figure - revealed in a discussion about raising parking rates - has the county's newest commissioner, Republican Chris Monzel, asking: Why is the county in the parking lot business?

At Wednesday's board meeting he suggested selling county-owned lots. Commissioner Greg Hartmann agreed it's a matter worth looking into.

"We need to look at divesting ourselves of things we really don't need to own and one of those things is parking garages," Monzel said. "Let's get those off our rolls."

Monzel suggested the lots could be sold, privatizing them similar to some of the plans Gov. John Kasich pitched in his state budget proposal this week.

"We are subsidizing these spaces and I know it's helpful in these economic times, but it is a pure government subsidy," Monzel said.

"It's not a core function of government to operate parking facilities," Hartmann added. "We should always pursue privatizing things that don't make sense to the government's mission and parking falls into that category."

Commissioner Todd Portune, the board's lone Democrat, is doubtful such a plan could work. He doesn't believe the county can sell the lots because they were built with public money.

"Not that we should, even if we were allowed," he said.

He added: "Parking serves a public purpose. These lots especially serve a public purpose. Once divested of ownership we lose all control over what happens at the lots and our ability to serve the public."

The county owns about a quarter of the surface lot spaces downtown, and about 18.5 percent of the garage spaces, about 6,000 total. It charges rates well below downtown market rates, according to a parking study commissioned by the board from Walker Parking Consultants. In fact, county lots are the cheapest lots of any downtown, even with commissioners deciding Wednesday to raise the rates for most spaces.

Those low rates help the commuters - the lots are popular with downtown workers - but have resulted in the county this year and over the next six years having to pay a minimum of $1.5 million a year to subsidize the operations. That money will come out of the sales tax used to pay for the county's two professional sports stadiums - a fund that is already saddled with a growing deficit.

A private company would only be interested in buying the parking lots if it could make money. To do that, it would almost certainly have to raise rates.

Parking has been quasi-privatized since 1996, with lots operated by private company Central Parking. But commissioners still set the rates.

Selling the lots off is a different story, said Terry Evans, the county's stadium director who also oversees the riverfront parking lots.

The garage isn't complete, there's debt on them and under the leases with the county's professional sports teams, the county must provide a certain number of spaces on game days.

So, anyone that wants to buy them would also have to take on the liabilities.

"Given the various different agreement and leases and requirements we have, it's a question of what the marketability of this operation would be," Evans said. "It's certainly something we will be looking into."

Per the team leases, the county must provide 5,000 spaces to Bengals and 3,500 spaces to the Reds, with parking revenue on game days going to the teams.

Commissioners on Wednesday directed Interim County Administrator Christian Sigman to raise rates for all but about 600 of the spots. Most noticeably, monthly rates in the Central Riverfront Garage jumped from $75 a month to $100 a month and from $4.50 a day to $8 a day. The rate increase was a requirement of one of several loans used to build the parking lots.
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