BIDDEFORD, Maine — The City Council is set to discuss Tuesday whether or not voters should have a say on development of a downtown parking garage.
City officials have been advocating for a garage, saying that without the addition of a parking structure, the mill district will not grow significantly. A parking study recently commissioned by the city reported much the same thing.
Economic Development Director Dan Stevenson says the city can pay for a proposed parking garage in the mill district without raising property taxes, and if they chose to, council members could approve funding the project.
However, on Tuesday, at the request of Councilor David Bourque, the council will consider a proposal to allow residents to weigh in regarding the much-discussed parking garage.
The council will consider placing a referendum question on the Nov. 5 ballot, which states, “Do you favor using public funds and/or TIF [tax increment financing] for the development/construction of a parking garage in the Mill District of downtown Biddeford?”
“First of all, that’s a poorly worded question,” said Mayor Alan Casavant.
“A lot of people are under the impression that [the garage] will drive up the property tax rate,” he said. “I’ve said since day one I wouldn’t consider constructing a parking garage that goes on the mil rate.”
Stevenson said a parking garage would be partially paid for through funds from a tax increment financing district fund.
According to Stevenson, a parking structure is an approved item for the use of those funds.
Municipalities can create TIF districts in order to capture the incremental property tax increase from new property valuations for up to 30 years.
During the period the TIF exists, all or a portion of the tax increase does not go into the general fund. Often the money is used for public infrastructure improvements, which Stevenson said is how the parking garage qualifies for TIF funding.
Although TIF funds don’t offset property taxes, he said, there is a benefit during the period when it is in place; the increased valuation is sheltered, so it is not counted in the state valuation and the municipality’s state and school aid doesn’t decrease.
In addition to TIF funds, metered parking on Main Street would be installed, and those payments would be used to help pay for the garage.
Some, such as Downtown Development Commission Chairman Brian Keely, object to metered parking.
Currently, Main Street has free, two-hour parking spaces. Keely said he’s been told by some customers of the Wonderbar restaurant, owned by his father, Vincent Keely, that they would stop coming if they had to pay for parking.
But Stevenson said he thinks metered parking could benefit downtown businesses. Now, much of the free on-street parking in the downtown is used by employees and area residents, he said.
If meters were installed, he said, spaces along Main Street would mostly be available for people going to downtown businesses.
Another frequent argument against a parking garage located in the mill district is that it would only benefit mill developers.
That isn’t the case, said Stevenson.
He said the garage, to be located on property that would be acquired by the city from the Pepperell Mill Campus, would have an entrance on Main Street so it could also be used by those frequenting downtown businesses.
Council members have had mixed reactions on whether the issue should go to referendum.
“I am in favor of a referendum question,” Councilor Bradley Cote wrote in an email. “I have talked to many people in Ward 3, and there is not an overwhelming majority that is in favor of the garage. (From the people I have talked to, it has been close to 50/50.) Because of this, I feel it should go to the voters.”
Councilor Melissa Bednarowski said she supports the parking garage because she thinks it is needed “for growth and development.”
She said she isn’t sure whether she favors putting the issue on the ballot.
Councilor Bob Mills said he thinks the referendum question is “premature” because there needs to be a full vetting of the issue by the council and the public, including public hearings and council workshops.
“This was what we did with the high school renovation bond, and the other bond packages since I’ve been on the council,” he said. In the case of the parking garage, public vetting “has not been done, and that is why I will be making a motion to table this question when, and if, it appears on our agenda.”
Casavant said he favors building a parking garage because it’s important for economic development and property tax relief for residents.
“People want tax relief,” he said. “The only way to get relief is to have development.”
Without the parking garage, development “comes to a screeching halt,” said Casavant.