Column: Should city lawmakers regulate employee parking rates or focus on legislating land use?

Because it operates under Indiana state law, the city of Bloomington’s local government is divided along familiar lines—between legislative and executive branches.

But when it comes to policy on parking prices for city hall employees, that division is not easy to discern.

The distinction is hard to see, because on the question of regulating employee parking permit pricing for the city hall lot, city councilmembers have veered into the executive lane.

For a couple of years, Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, didn’t yield to the council. But last fall, as a part of the 2022 budget negotiations, Hamilton agreed to set up a pilot “parking cash-out” program for city hall employees.

The idea behind the “parking cash-out” program is to reward city employees who work in city hall but who don’t park in the lot. If they’re not parking in the lot, then they’re arriving at work in some way that is consistent with the city’s climate change and sustainability goals.

Under this year’s pilot program, an employee pays $200, instead of the old $2 nominal fee—but gets reimbursed by the city for the $200 cost. Employees who choose not to purchase a permit can instead request a taxable $200 “stipend.”

It’s not surprising that Hamilton’s administration has not been eager to try “parking cash-out” for its employees. That’s because the city of Bloomington’s circumstances—as the owner of the parking spaces in question—are different from those that apply in classic “parking cash-out” programs.

Further, by distracting themselves with city personnel issues that are beyond their knowledge and responsibility, city councilmembers have avoided addressing policies over which they have actual legislative control.

Specifically, the city council should be weighing whether paid surface parking on some city-owned downtown lots—at city hall off Morton Street, at 4th and Washington, and at 4th and Dunn—is really the greatest, best use of that land. Arguably, a better use of all three lots would include housing.

What is the Bloomington city council’s priority—shelter for automobiles or shelter for people?

By pressuring the administration to develop a city employee parking program for the city hall surface lot, councilmembers are sending a clear message: Bloomington’s city council thinks the greatest, best use of that land is surface parking, not housing.

The city council has at least a couple of legislative options to push the administration to sell the three lots to developers who would build housing there.

First, under state law,  the city council could pass a resolution to direct the plan commission to consider specific zoning changes—like disallowing surface parking as an allowable land use for those lots.

Second, under Bloomington city code, the city council has legislative control over the pricing for those three city-owned surface lots. Pricing that is set to take effect in five years, could be used to prod the administration to start thinking now, about converting the land to housing.

If the city council does not want the city administration to use those lots for public surface parking, one approach would be to amend the code so that the maximum amount the city can charge for parking is $0.00. If the city wanted to continue to allow parking there, it would have to make it free—which is an option the administration would presumably not choose.

Or if the council wanted to avoid the possibility of free parking at those lots, it could legislate at the opposite extreme, by setting the minimum price at $50 an hour.

In support of an employee “parking cash-out” program, some councilmembers say it would mean setting the cost of parking at the city hall surface lot close to a “market rate,” along the lines of any public lot. The council has the legislative power to do that itself, by making the city hall lot a public lot, and prescribing the parking fee for that lot.

It’s worth noting that the California statute on parking cash-out, which some councilmembers cite as an example of “parking cash-out,” would not even apply to the city of Bloomington as an employer.

That’s because the statute applies just to employers who give a “subsidy” for employee parking. And “subsidy” is specifically defined in California state law as (emphasis added): “the difference between the out-of-pocket amount paid by an employer on a regular basis in order to secure the availability of an employee parking space not owned by the employer and the price, if any, charged to an employee for use of that space.”

What makes any “parking cash-out” program implemented by the city of Bloomington a harder sell to employees is that the “cash” that is supposed to come “out” of the program and into an employee’s pocket, would first have to be artificially injected.

Under a California-style parking cash-out program, the cash is already a part of the equation—because it’s being paid by the employer to the owner of the parking facility. To an employee’s ear, it sounds perfectly reasonable for the employer to make a pitch like this: Look, Fred, right now we’re paying Al’s Garage $50 a month for your parking permit. If you don’t want the permit, we’ll pay the money to you instead.

But if the employer owns the parking facility, like the city of Bloomington does, then the pitch sounds like this: Look, Fred, right now you pay us $2 for a parking permit, so we’re now going to make you pay us $200—but don’t worry, we’ll reimburse you for that $200—and if you don’t want a parking permit, then we will pay you the $200.

At the city council’s “budget advance” held last Tuesday (May 31), the pilot “parking cashout” program drew scrutiny from some councilmembers, who had various concerns and suggestions.

Acting on the input from councilmembers on a personnel issue, which is not the council’s bailiwick, still works to the advantage of the Hamilton administration. It’s easier to tweak a parking permit program in response to councilmember feedback, than it is to develop housing on surface parking lots.

As long as the Bloomington city council is distracted with personnel issues, Hamilton’s administration does not have to think about converting surface parking lots to housing.

5 thoughts on “Column: Should city lawmakers regulate employee parking rates or focus on legislating land use?

  1. who is it that is lobbying here for even more high rise apartments down town. economics will tell the tale here. if it was economically possible to finance and operate a large apartment building where in the rents were far below the market rates they would already exist. the future holds two certain issues: continued homelessness with increasing numbers of homeless as Bloomington provides more services to attract them, and the use of cars of various propulsion as public transportation or bicycles are not what most people could use regularly. economic vibrancy and growth requires traffic, foot and car. Bloomington is no longer a sleepy little town. national developers have discovered us and large apartment complexes are springing up all over. we are becoming like Asheville, N. C., a touted destination where the biggest complaint from visitors and inhabitants is the many homeless people. building and subsidizing low rent housing downtown will not make Bloomington more attractive to tourists, students or developers. i do not knw the right answer to the homeless problem but i can see the wrong one.

  2. Um, a question and a comment. Is the string “Column:” at beginning of a post’s title intended to indicate that Dave is about to get on his soapbox? If not, there needs to be some such device. If so, there needs to be a better one. Print newspapers put news and opinion on separate pages for good reason.

    Obviously, the Common Council is obsessed with climate change, despite the fact that even if Bloomington fell off the face of the earth overnight the problem would be only imperceptibly closer to a solution in the morning.

    But, even if you accept the proposition that the Common Council is micromanaging something out of their bailiwick, nothing in the ‘column’ and nothing that I have seen elsewhere demonstrates the this reflects a lack of concern for housing issues or creates cover for the administration to ignore housing issues. And even if it did, I shudder at the thought of how the administration would go about trying to redevelop parking lots as affordable housing, given the way they have gone about the Hopewell project, in particular, and everything in general.

    1. Just on your first point, Mr. Coulter, I think “Column:” is sufficient to signal the soapbox. With the H-T having abandoned any civic editorial voice of its own, I appreciate very much having Dave posting opinion pieces focused on local issues he covers. In a news source that can offer only 1-2 items per day, it makes no sense to segregate opinion items on separately accessed “pages.” Maybe if the Bulletin is able to grow as Gannett shrinks the H-T . . .

      On the substance of your response to the column, I think your points supplement rather than contradict Dave’s. Reasonable (and competent) approaches to prime land use in the context of an acute housing shortage is an issue Bloomington needs to continue to focus on.

  3. Bloomington is not big enough to remove all public parking and expect robust business in the private sector to continue. Be careful what you ask for. You might get it.

  4. So the rationale for building the Trades district garage was to address an increased need for parking in the area; now some would have us abandon existing parking in favor of yet more market rate housing (as any notion of affordable housing in that location is financial fantasy). We have no shortage of market rate housing. So again, what practical goal does this initiative seek to attain? A theoretical paid incentive that will have zero impact upon the climate? Perhaps the bigger concern is the attention being paid to the pursuit of ideology at the expense–and I use the word “expense” pointedly–of pragmatic matters.

Comments are closed.