Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Rory Veronda has never had to concern himself much with the loading zone near his Nob Hill business. After all, it had been there since he opened Empire Board Game Library at Amherst and Central six years ago.
But then a letter arrived from the city of Albuquerque.
It indicated that the painted curb – and enforcement of its 15-minute free parking – will now cost $500 per year to maintain. Shocked, Veronda called the city and learned it had recently moved the loading zone permits out of the traffic engineering division and into parking enforcement, a city division responsible for generating all of its own operating revenue.
“My guess is they’re hitting up all of these businesses that have small loading zones for money,” said Veronda, who said he is bothered both because the city deemed him financially responsible for the loading zone – which patrons of other area businesses also use – and because the city planned to start charging him for it during a pandemic.
While Veronda had never before been billed, charging for a loading zone is technically not a new policy; however, the city in the past did little to assess or monitor payment, according to a city spokesman, who said tracking had previously been “falling by the wayside.”
Record-keeping was such that the city does not know how many loading zones – which businesses can request and the city approves – currently exist across Albuquerque, spokesman Johnny Chandler said. The city also does not know who originally requested the zone outside Veronda’s business.
Chandler said the parking division is currently working on inventorying them – and sending out fee notices to the businesses that either requested them or otherwise appear to be associated with them. If nobody in the vicinity pays to keep them, the zones are to be removed.
But since taking over the program, parking has also raised fees. Under the old policy, a 20-foot zone cost $300 up front and $105 annually to renew. Now annual fees are $500 for a 20-foot spot in the Downtown, university and Nob Hill areas, and $50 per extra foot.
That is less than what the city contends they are worth; such a parking spot might generate $3,000 per year if it were metered, Chandler said.
However, in response to Veronda’s concerns and subsequent questions from the Journal, Chandler said the city has decided to delay charging the increased fees. They will not be assessed for at least six months. Chandler said that given the COVID-19 pandemic, parking had erred in raising fees now.
“The idea of moving programs forward to offer better services to this community is great; the idea of increasing fees associated with these services without understanding the effect the pandemic is having on people is not,” he said. “These additional fees need to wait until the pandemic is over.”
It is the second time during the pandemic that the city has backtracked on a new parking division policy. This summer, the city began charging $25 per permit to park in streets in residential areas that require permits, including some neighborhoods around the University of New Mexico and the state fairgrounds. Those permits had previously been free. Backlash and media scrutiny prompted a quick policy reversal. The city is now charging only those who order the permits online and still providing them at no cost for those who pick them up in person.
The parking division, as the Journal has reported previously, has also ramped up ticketing in recent years. Despite two months without enforcement staff due to COVID-19, the division issued 35% more total citations in fiscal year 2020 than in 2019. It also finished the fiscal year with about $300,000 in profit.
While the parking division has some latitude to increase fees, Chandler said the city is working internally to prohibit another attempt for the duration of the pandemic.
“We are going to ensure that parking enforcement does not raise parking fees of essentially any manner during the pandemic unless the City Council legislates it,” he said.
City Council President Pat Davis said he learned about both policies after the fact, which he called “frustrating.” He said Mayor Tim Keller’s administration should clearly communicate such discretionary changes to the council and the public.
“We’re not going to spend every City Council meeting asking about what fee and fine they choose to start enforcing this week,” Davis said. “I do think it’s incumbent on the administration to do some notice and say ‘Here’s our strategy.’ ”
When the Journal informed Veronda of the city’s recent decision to not charge the higher loading zone fees for at least six months, he said he would revisit the permit then, but said he is still concerned about the total cost, – which he said is too high – and that the city waited until after he complained to the media and Councilor Davis before changing course.
“I have to go through all these channels to get them to come up with something like that, as opposed to them (taking) a step back and listening to what people are saying,” he said.