BANGOR, Maine — City councilors voted against a pair of privatized parking proposals Monday night that the city’s airport and downtown committees backed less than a month ago.
But committee recommendations are just that — recommendations — and one councilor said Tuesday that she was switching her stance at the last moment to send a message to the parking company.
Several councilors expressed discontent with Republic Parking management and responsiveness toward customer and council concerns. A Republic Parking official said Tuesday that he was “devastated and surprised” by the sudden flip and strong criticisms he saw at Monday’s meeting.
Earlier this month, the city’s Airport Committee unanimously recommended approval of a 5-year agreement to extend the Tennessee-based national parking firm’s contract to handle parking at Bangor International Airport.
In a 4-1 vote in June, the city’s Business and Economic Development Committee recommended the full council approve a deal that would have privatized on-street parking downtown, allowing Republic Parking to use a vehicle-mounted camera system to record license plates and find parking violations. That system would have resulted in the elimination of four part-time city parking enforcement positions. Republic also would have taken over the duties of issuing citations and processing payments, while continuing to operate the Pickering Square Parking Garage.
The council on Monday night tied in a 4-4 vote, with Councilor Susan Hawes absent, on the airport parking deal, and the proposal was rejected for lack of majority support. The proposal to continue the downtown parking contract failed unanimously.
Councilor Patricia Blanchette, who supported the parking proposals during committee meetings not more than a month ago, acknowledged Tuesday afternoon that she was “playing politics” and purposely withheld her complaints about Republic Parking until Monday’s official council vote.
“This has been a longstanding problem I’ve had with Republic Parking,” Blanchette said, adding that the only votes that count are the ones she casts during full council meetings.
Parke Clemens, Republic Parking manager, said Tuesday that he was taken aback by the
council’s decision and some of their comments, which he said were “out of the blue.”
“I was thrown way off,” he said, adding that the councilors who attended the committee meetings where the parking deals were discussed raised few issues, and most of those were about the proposal to replace several city parking employees with one Republic Parking employee in a vehicle.
Blanchette said she had called Republic Parking and left a message asking Clemens to call her. She had concerns about rude employees taking tickets at parking lots.
Councilor James Gallant said during the meeting that several Bangor residents had complained to him about lack of responsiveness from Republic Parking. One told him their scooter was vandalized, another said their camper was damaged at the garage. Both told Gallant that they were told to contact Republic Parking through a 1-800 number and were given “the runaround,” according to the councilor, who questioned whether a company based in Tennessee could be responsive to complaints and problems raised in Bangor, Maine.
Gallant said he brought these concerns up during an Airport Committee meeting about six months ago, but they were never addressed. He did not attend the most recent meeting about parking.
Other people have reported being stranded in Bangor at night after getting out of concerts or late events and finding that the parking garage had closed, leaving them no way to get their vehicle out.
Clemens said he believed he and his company had been responsive to the concerns raised by councilors and customers.
Councilor Joe Baldacci said Tuesday that the main reason he voted against the downtown parking proposal were the concerns raised by Gallant and Blanchette.
“Those issues need to be addressed before we enter another contract with them,” Baldacci said.
Both Republic Parking contracts expire in September, according to City Manager Cathy Conlow. She said she would speak with councilors about their concerns and how they want to handle parking in the future.
“For the time being, the city will continue parking enforcement the way we’ve done it,” Conlow said.
Gallant said “the city will be looking at other options” and discussing whether continuing with Republic Parking is in the best interests of Bangor residents.
Other councilors, including David Nealley, Charlie Longo, Ben Sprague and Joe Baldacci voted against the downtown parking proposal because they were hesitant to privatize parking enforcement when it would mean the elimination of city employees. Nealley cited a situation in which a child was left behind after missing the bus at the children’s museum downtown. The child found a parking enforcement employee wearing a yellow vest, who was able to get the child in touch with family. Nealley also said the employees serve as deterrents of crime and illegal parking downtown.
Sprague said he would like to see the city continue to pursue ways of modernizing its parking enforcement to make it faster and more effective, regardless of what the future with Republic Parking might be. Blanchette also said she likes the idea of the vehicle-based license plate monitoring system, which Republic Parking claimed would be 25 times more effective at parking management than the walk-and-chalk based method.
The city first considered the switch two years ago, but the bid fell flat because of lower-than-expected savings over five years. However, in the past two years, the cost of the license plate recognition system had dropped drastically, from about $86,000 to $33,000, increasing its appeal.
“The change last night was somewhat of a surprise,” said Council Chairman Nelson Durgin. “The position appears to be that they want to look at other alternatives,” but it is too early to say what those might be.
“[It’s] really up to the city to decide how they want to proceed,” Clemens said.