Rhino's Ramblings - Parking In The Past

By Robert Thomas - Opinion/Commentary

Whether you consider its arrival late or not the City of Moose Jaw’s Audited Financial Statement for 2018 has arrived.

This is the statement which provides what was budgeted by Council and what was actually spent by the City in 2018.

During discussion on the Statement Councillor Brian Swanson pointed out what he called key economic indicators which showed there are some major economic problems in Moose Jaw. Problems which showed up in things such as actual versus budgeted revenue the City received in 2018.

One of the key areas Councillor Swanson targeted was what he called the “golden goose” of parking meters.

As Councillor Swanson spoke about the City seemingly fixated in no longer nickle and diming it’s citizenry who dared park Downtown but rather a quarter for six minutes of time at some parking meters I could not but help to think about the past.

A past most have likely forgotten about but one in many ways the City of Moose Jaw in my perspective is repeating.

I thought back to the 1990's to the era of when Don Mitchell was mayor of Moose Jaw.

This was the time of major cutbacks by the City.

It was just after the Progressive Conservative government of Grant Devine had fallen and Roy Romanow and the NDP were making massive cuts due to the true financial state of the Province.

One of those major cuts back then was transit. You went from a service which provided not only a relatively decent daytime schedule and even some evening service to one which for many riders became an unreliable service hour wise.

It was also, I will fully admit, a time where public transit in Moose Jaw was rapidly losing its appeal. Something which was happening all over as societal attitudes were shifting to just driving.

Just get in the car and go.

In one day the announcement came down from the Romanow government in Regina and the once powerful public transit subsidy was gone. In response Council in the Don Mitchell era seemingly had no choice and cut the service back.

So how does the Don Mitchell era as mayor tie into today?

It all ties into one item brought up by Councillor Swanson and that is his contention the City is seeing money from parking meters as a “golden goose.”

When he mentioned this it instantly made me think back to a conversation I had with the then Mayor Don Mitchell a quarter century ago about parking meters.

I had asked then Mayor Mitchell why didn't the City just get rid of them as they were killing the Downtown and everyone was shopping at the then robust Town and Country Mall. The response I received I can remember vividly.

What Mayor Mitchell told me is the City could not because they were the only thing bringing in revenue at the time.

A proverbial golden goose that Councillor Swanson had just mentioned a quarter of a century later at Council.

The similarities – both economically and socially – were startling.

In the Mitchell era you had provincial cutbacks in a time where the province had seen a bit of a boom – albeit financed by a provincial government attempting to break an economic cycle – followed by cutbacks by the Province and the City of Moose Jaw had to make cuts as a result.

Does this sound familiar to the situation occurring at the present time? Is history in many ways repeating itself?

If you were to really read between the lines it may well be what Councillor Swanson is saying. There needs to be an adjustment in priorities and it needs to be a radical shift is what I personally read into what Councillor Swanson was getting at.

You can no longer look at the tried and true revenue generators but rather you need to make key changes if your goal is to assist the Downtown business community.

The Audited Financial Statement in my own estimation does in fact point to a downturn in sales in the Downtown and it is shown in not only the revenues received from parking meters but the fines received as well.

The fines are down from what was budgeted for.

Now here is where I am going to tie this to some anecdotal information I heard from a couple of Downtown merchants and that is sales in 2018 for most business owners were down.

What I was told was on average it was about 20 percent but for some businesses reliant upon the night club crowd it was running in the 35 to 40 percent range.

What the Downtown merchants told me, something backed up by business surveys of all its members province-wide by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), the reason for the sales drop is due to a sluggish economy. A sluggish economy where small business owners are pessimistic for the most part in their hiring plans.

The local Downtown business owners also told me the increase in parking meter rates is not helping.

Parking meters, whose main purpose is to really keep traffic flow moving freeing up space for business clientele, have in many ways gone overboard and had a negative effect on the Downtown and turned into a golden goose for the City.

So why doesn't the City simply reduce the parking meter rates and hopefully bring more shoppers to the Downtown?

Well the simplified answer is actually two-fold.

First there is a need to keep traffic flow moving in the Downtown. Secondly there is a bit of social manipulation going on as the City attempted to force people frequenting the Downtown to forego driving and take transit instead.

What Council did a couple of years back was they dropped the fare to go Downtown from $2.50 to $1.25 for adult riders or effectively halved it from where it had been. Transfers were eliminated. At the same time they increased the parking meter rates in an attempt not to ensure an effective turnover in parking stalls and access to shoppers but to make up for lost revenue in transit.

By the figures pointed out by the 2018 Audited Financial Statement the great social experiment to revive transit ridership and free up parking in the Downtown failed. It is something pointed out by Councillor Heather Eby that it was a good try but needs to be re-visited.

How much of a failure was it? Well in this scribes opinion it is on the borderline of bad to abysmal. The subsidy to public transit remains at close to a million dollars annually.

I know this may sound a little bit out there but might a better attempt at social engineering be to simply forego the $600,000 brought in by fares annually and just offer free transit to all? If your goal is to increase transit ridership - albeit to raise ticket revenue – while at the same time stimulating Downtown business might free ridership be an answer?

It is a risky proposition for sure but it is also one favored by people such as former Saskatchewan Green Party leader Victor Lau.

So what does this all mean?

Well it is obvious many local businesses and ordinary people are hurting. The economic downturn from 2014 and the resultant drop in incomes from underemployment or worse yet unemployment is hitting the city and it is hitting the city hard.

Homes on the market are up, foreclosure numbers were at record monthly highs and the unemployment rate is stagnant and not dropping.

I have heard from people who had good jobs for well over 10 years and in the last year forth first time in their lives found themselves unemployed and after looking for close to a year their Employment Insurance is running out. The despair is setting in rapidly.

Although it is not the City of Moose Jaw's or Council's responsibility to maintain and also create jobs – that is ultimately the responsibility of the Provincial and Federal Governments - actions taken by the City or rather Council can have some very serious consequences in the livelihoods of business owners and residents alike.

It is something Council needs to remain cognizant of because something like shaving off a minute or two off of a parking meter fee may seem like pocket change it can easily harm business and kill jobs.

moose jaw