CARIBOU, Maine — Two blunt questions were posed by councilor David Martin this week summarizing the current debate over whether to sell seven downtown parking lots: “Should we have municipal parking?” and “How much?”
“I don’t think we need seven parking lots, but I agree we need municipal parking,” he said during the Monday night meeting of the Highway Safety Committee.
The seven parking lots with a total of about 330 parking spaces have received much conversational attention since city councilors put them out to bid in mid-July. For decades, Caribou has been responsible for snow removal and maintenance of the lots located at the Downtown Mall, 7 and 37 Hatch Drive, 6 Water Street and behind the American Legion.
The proposed sale elicited adamantly expressed concerns from downtown business and property owners, who cited, among other hypothetical scenarios, that an outside entity could theoretically purchase any or all of the parking lots and completely close them to businesses and the public — or charge exorbitant fees for parking.
The city didn’t receive any bid for the parking lots and councilors have offered their assurances that any such bids would have been refused — a sentiment that was repeated during Monday night’s meeting.
“I’m not in favor of selling them to anyone but the business owners,” reiterated Councilor Joan Theriault.
Going forward, the committee will recommend to the Caribou City Council that adjacent business owners be given the option of buying their respective parking lots for $1.
One audience member asked what would happen if the business owners don’t buy their parking lots.
“Quite honestly, the only other alternative is we keep them,” said Mayor Gary Aiken, describing how the majority of parking spaces at the downtown mall are for two-hour parking and that perhaps the city should enforce the new ordinances with their new fee schedule, putting aside any generated funds specifically for the maintenance of those parking lots.
Six councilors were in attendance for the committee meeting, as well as a number of business and property owners.
The fate of the parking lots has proven itself to be a multifaceted issue with layers of complexity, but Phil McDonough, the chairman of the Highway Safety Committee, explained to audience members that the driving force behind the sale of the parking lots was fiscally related.
As the city only recently finalized a scrutinized budget for the current fiscal year, work on next year’s budget is already just a stone’s throw away — and preliminary figures suggest that the city could be looking at an even larger shortfall in state revenue sharing than this year’s $380,000 loss. McDonough said the city has been attempting to get property like tax acquired properties back on the city tax roll, but admitted that some things have surfaced in the recent parking lot discussions that the council hadn’t been fully aware of.
McDonough restated that the initial parking lot sale was proposed to save money, “and I think if we’re not thinking outside the box, we’re not doing our jobs. Sometimes we’re going to make mistakes, just like anyone else, and that’s why we’re here tonight.”
The proposed sale of the parking lots would have saved the city about $50,000 in maintenance and upkeep, but some business and property owners attending the meeting painted a devastating picture as to what privately owned downtown parking lots could look like. Namely, they described how an unintended consequence of the sale might be to push business from Caribou’s downtown to locations that were more business-friendly. Some asked what the incentive would be for allowing people to use their privately-owned parking spaces after hours.
“If I own a portion of that parking lot, when I’m not there and my business isn’t open, I don’t want it open to the public because of the liability exposure,” explained Troy Heald. “So then you close the parking lot — Thursdays on Sweden street, where do people go?” he added, “Sometimes, there’s unintended circumstances.”
Councilor Theriault questioned how many people attending Monday’s meeting were parked in the Aroostook County Federal Savings and Loan parking lot next door — a parking lot that does have a sign specifying that parking is for customers only.
The room was hushed for just a moment before folks were given the OK for their parking transgressions by the bank’s President, John Swanberg, who was in attendance.
“We’re happy to allow you to do that,” Swanberg said, and the audience chuckled in response.
While some property owners have expressed interest in purchasing the parking lots exclusively adjacent to their building, the situation gets more complicated in areas like the north and south parking lots of the downtown mall. Mall tenants would theoretically have to find some way to divvy up ownership of the shared parking areas and determine what a business’ fair share of the parking lot maintenance cost would be — and more than likely need to establish some sort of parking association — which would mean additional work and additional cost for the business owners.
Mary Lee Belanger brought up a different aspect of the multifaceted issue altogether.
“I’ve heard about people saying if they were to pay a fee they couldn’t afford it because their taxes have gone up. I’ve heard people say if they were given the property for $1 they wouldn’t want it … I think you people are so lucky,” she said to the downtown business and property owners in attendance.
“I’m a small business. I pay for my parking lots — two of them,” Belanger said. “I have been in business for 52 years. I have paid my dues in this town, I have helped people in this town, I have struggled to keep my doors open, but I still pay because I believe in this city. I believe in fairness, and this isn’t fair.
“My taxes have gone up tremendously, which I can’t afford. But I’m still going to pay. If someone gives me an opportunity to buy my parking lot for $1, don’t you think I would grab it?” she questioned. “You people are so lucky to have had this for free all these years, I wish I had that opportunity, I really do.”
Kenneth Murchison, who stated at different times that he is against the parking lot sale, also talked about fairness.
“Is it fair that we pave one road and not the next, or is it fair that we turn off one street lamp but not someone else’s?” he asked. “You might say ‘no, it’s not fair’ but actually, it is fair when you consider the good to the whole community, and I think the city retaining those parking lots is good for the whole community.”
The committee recommendation to make the parking lots available to adjacent business owners for $1 is slated to be on the City Council’s agenda at it’s next meeting beginning at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 9, in the Council Chambers.