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June 20, 2013

Paid parking upsetting merchants

Software glitches resolved; village stressing finances

Cooperstown Crier

---- — Entering the third week of the new paid parking system, the software glitches have apparently been fixed, but the bad feelings among many local merchants have not been soothed.

“Up on Main Street, we are calling it Katz’s folly,” said Fred Lemister, the owner of Rudy’s Liquor Store, alluding to Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz. “I have yet to find a merchant to say a good thing about paid parking.”

Lemister said that his business, which has been owned by his family since the 1940s, is down about $100 a day in June compared to 2012 revenues. He said he attributes the drop to local customers deciding not to pay for parking, adding that the problems are greater for businesses like his that are not tourist focused.

Paid parking “is everything we said it would be, a detriment to business,” Lemister said. 

“We rely on local customers, but the local customers are not shopping here right now,” he continued. “They say they won’t pay money to park just so they can shop in our store. I can’t blame them, I wouldn’t pay to park so I could shop in my store either. People have been saying, ‘We pay taxes to the village. We shouldn’t have to pay to park also.’”

Katz said he understands the anger of some merchants.

“To pin it on me is fine, I am the mayor,” he said. “I understand if the anger is directed at me.”

Katz said that he is concerned about the health of local businesses, but that he is also concerned about the overall health of the village. This week he released a 10-point “brief synopsis of Cooperstown finances” to help explain the need for paid parking in the tourist season.

“The village government has to be a sustainable system,” he said. “No one says the roads and sidewalks are fine and the village shouldn’t worry about fixing them. It is the question of how do we do this that people have different opinions about.”

The synopsis states that the only way for the village to generate revenue is from taxes and fees. By law, the village only gets 1 percent of sales taxes; by comparison the county gets 76 percent. The city of Oneonta gets 12 percent. The village also gets none of the county bed tax, although it has been given some of that tax in the past.

Cooperstown receives about $300,000 in sales tax revenues, but according to the synopsis, generates 10 times that amount. Since the village is losing out on a “fair” share of its sales tax revenues, past mayors have looked into Cooperstown becoming a city, and therefore keeping its sales and bed taxes. To do so, would require a bill to be passed in the state legislature and signed by the governor.

With revenues limited, and infrastructure in need of fixes or in some cases complete overhauls, the village turned to paid parking after years of debating it. The new paid parking is on Main and Pioneer streets seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. On weekends, it will extend until Oct. 27.

As of Tuesday, 640 parking permits have been sold, bringing the revenue total to $16,000 plus revenues from the parking meters and tickets; neither of the latter two figures are available yet.

While some merchants are sympathetic to the needs of the village, they are also aware of their own bottom lines.

“I am sympathetic to them,” said Brenda Berstler, owner of Savor New York. “They are desperate for revenue. If you can’t raise taxes, if you are not a city and only a village, then there are only so many things you can do.”

“People never like change,” she continued. “But the execution was clumsy. (The village) could have made it like getting into a bath of tepid water. Instead they made it ice water.”

A couple of doors down from Savor New York is Reid’s Barbershop. Rumors spread around town this week that the shop is going out of business because of paid parking, but those rumors were untrue. “I’m not going out of business because of paid parking,” owner Reid Nagelschmidt said, “but it is definitely hurting me. I’ve been down about $150 a day.”

Berstler stressed that she has been supportive of the paid parking plan, going so far as to request a meter outside her store on upper Main Street, for the convenience of her customers. However, she said she thinks $2 an hour for parking is too expensive.

“I think people are having sticker shock,” she said. “Outside of New York City, I don’t know any place that charges $2 an hour for parking.”

Added Lemister, “Local people are not city people. City people may be used to paying for parking. Up here people are not that way. People are more independent up here. They are not going to pay for parking. It has become a matter of principal for them.”

The business owners say they are coping with the changes. Stagecoach Coffee, which is on Pioneer Street, put out a message on its Facebook page reminding its customers that there are free 15-minute parking spaces near the business. They are also pushing the sales of the permits.

“We just wanted to extend a warm invitation to our local customers,” the message read. “We miss you.”

At Rudy’s there are two signs on the front door and another on the cash register offering coins for the meter. At Savor New York, Berstler is handing out sacks of quarters to reimburse customers who spend more than $25. For Father’s Day, she offered free parking for anyone who bought a tie. Validating parking is something lots of businesses do, she said.

“Busnesses are always coping,” Berstler said. “That’s how you stay in business. You adapt or you wither away.”

Still she agrees that the initial reaction from other merchants is that it has affected the bottom line.

“It’s a hit,” she said. “The initial reaction is that revenues are down all over.”

Lemister had an even harsher assessment.

“This project is being done on the backs of the merchants,” he said. “Each business is going to have to figure out if it can keep enough customers to stay in business. What options do you have? You just have to deal with less revenue. If less revenue makes your business insolvent, then you have to go out of business.”