Santa Monica City Leaders Must Also Pay for Parking

Santa Monica could approve progressive parking rate increases tonight, but will staff continue to park free? Photo via city website
Santa Monica could approve progressive parking rate increases tonight, but will staff continue to park free? Photo via city website

Parking is a hot topic in seemingly progressive Santa Monica – with a second reading and adoption of an ordinance scheduled to go before city council today to raise downtown parking rates. The March 6, 2018 staff report referenced in the ordinance notes that parking pricing is one of the most important ways to manage a limited resource – the goal being to find the parking pricing point that maximizes utility. That’s a fancy way of saying, if the city charges a hundred bucks an hour for parking, a lot of parking spots will remain empty but if parking is only ten cents an hour, everyone will just hog spots and there will never be any spaces available.

What these reports and parking studies fail to mention is that Santa Monica City employees are not only exempt from the policy changes, but are currently entitled to free parking. There are ~2,200 full time city employees – that means on any given day, a significant portion of Santa Monica’s limited parking pool can be unavailable to residents, visitors, and businesses.

The ordinance should be modified to explicitly require that city leadership (executives, directors, and even city council) pay standard public rates for parking. This change would ensure that policy makers behave in ways that are consistent with the city’s values and have ‘skin in the game’ with the policies they develop and propose. It would also demonstrate leadership to employees – after all, if your boss and your boss’s boss drive to work alone in a car, why shouldn’t you?

Free parking is a great perk. I should know, because for 5 years I enjoyed free parking as a city of Santa Monica employee. It’s the only time an employer has covered my parking. Even when I lived in affordable, parking-abundant Atlanta, my company at the time only paid parking costs if we were in the office for extended hours. Free parking had the predictable deleterious effect on my behavior — most of the time I drove alone to work, even though I could have easily taken the bus. Providing free and subsidized parking to city employees undermines Santa Monica’s sustainability goals, and contributes to congestion and pollution.

There is more than just an environmental cost to these inconsistent parking policies. One of the five strategic priorities of Santa Monica is “establishing a new model for mobility”. Free parking is part of an outdated, indefensible transit model. By preaching one thing to the community (parking rate increases and eliminated parking minimums) and practicing another (free council and city employee parking) Mayor Winterer and every councilmember who votes to adopt this ordinance is contributing to a perception that government is not to be trusted. This lack of trust makes it challenging to implement sustainable goals and results in community infighting when we should be figuring out how to solve the formidable challenges we face, not the least of which is catastrophic climate change.

To be fair, the city has recently implemented a parking buy-out for city employees who give up their parking spots; however, paying someone to not park is not the same as charging for parking in a city that lauds itself as sustainable. It’s easier to spend public funds to reward what should be expected behavior than it is to simply do the work. In the same vein, it is frustrating that Santa Monica is building an ultra-sustainable city hall addition that will cost at least 80 million tax payer dollars but is not willing to implement the basic building blocks of sustainable living – like charging for employee parking. This is the equivalent of spending thousands of dollars for cosmetic dental work but not bothering to brush and floss every day – it’s a needlessly painful, reckless mismanagement of public resources.

I can’t blame city staff for not volunteering to pay for their parking. It’s a fraught, political issue, and no one wants to fork over an extra $100-$200 a month to get to work. Last week a dispute over a parking spot in the city turned violent and racist – demonstrating how sensitive the issue of parking can get (not to mention the unresolved issues of racism in the community). If sustainability and transparency are values the city claims to embody, it is important that city leaders – especially those who are well compensated — be held accountable to the parking policies imposed on the public.

I applaud Santa Monica for adopting innovative and at times controversial policies to manage parking resources and become a more sustainable community. At the same time, if Santa Monica wants to deserve its reputation as a progressive and sustainable community, then city leaders must fully live these values – by committing to using alternate methods of transportation, and by paying what the public pays for parking.

Homa Mojtabai is a Massachusetts-bred, Santa Monica-based writer and public servant. Read more of her work at her website

  • I agree. They should just do parking cash out: give the employees the cash equivalent of the cost of parking and let them spend it however they want. Some people will still drive, but it will be less than under the free parking policy.

  • com63

    or at a minimum treat parking as a taxable benefit and report the value on the W2s of employees. If people don’t park, they pay less taxes.

  • calwatch

    Remember that the Santa Monica free parking is a union benefit, in the MOU. This would be an interesting test of leftist bona fides. Even “cash out” participants can drive to work for free five times a month, with the sixth and future times charged at $10, which is below market rate; and once they drive ten times a month, they can drive the rest of the month for “free” without penalty. The cashout only started in January 2018. Here’s a representative MOU (this one for middle management):
    https://www.smgov.net/Departments/HR/Labor_Relations/MOUs/MTA_MOU_2017-2020_Final_PRINT.aspx

    ” Employee Parking
    Employees shall be provided with a parking location and parking card or other
    identification placard to park in City workplaces. In order to encourage employees
    to commute using alternative means of transportation other than single occupancy
    vehicle (SOV) driving, a parking cashout incentive shall be offered. Each MTA
    member shall have the option to commit to a non-SOV driving form of
    transportation as her/his principal mode of transportation and forego receiving a
    card or other parking identification placard in exchange for a monthly payment
    (cashout) in the amount of $100. Employees will not be eligible for cashout if they
    drive alone (SOV) to work and park in an alternative location to their designated
    parking location.

    In order to facilitate the need for parking cashout participants to drive to work and
    park occasionally, the City will provide a pay-per-use parking card (or other
    mechanism based on available technology) upon request by the employee to park
    in the Civic Center parking facility. The first five uses of the card per month will not
    be charged. Based on the number of times the employee drives to work alone
    (SOV) during the month, beginning with the sixth monthly usage of the card, the
    employee will be charged $10 per use to be deducted from the following month’s
    cashout payment. Participants receiving the cashout who park in uncontrolled lots
    will receive a day pass to park when needed. For each day pass issued, beginning
    with the sixth used each month, the employee will be charged $10 per use to be
    deducted from the following month’s cashout payment.
    The cashout for the upcoming month shall be paid in the first paycheck of the
    month and is currently taxable. If tax laws are modified to allow the cashout to be
    designated as pre-tax, the City will then provide the cashout as a pre-tax benefit.
    Employees receiving cashout may opt out of the program by notifying the program
    administrator and a parking card or identification placard shall be issued, which will
    be valid beginning the first day of the following month, and parking cashout will be
    cancelled.
    This provision does not apply to employees who travel to and from work in a City
    provided vehicle on a regular basis.
    This program will be implemented effective January 1, 2018. ”

    The market rate for parking at the Santa Monica lot is $160. I know why Santa Monica does it; so they can evade including it in compensation and fringe benefits, not make it pensionable, and fool the State Controller’s records which only include cash salary, pensions, and health benefits (although the better Transparent California data includes total cost of employment, free parking also wouldn’t be considered a cost unlike, say, a car allowance). But they can certainly give everyone a free EZ transit pass bought at bulk (the entire city is basically a RPP, so neighborhood park and ride will likely not happen), allow those who don’t take the EZ transit pass a $100 non-pensionable, cashout and force everyone who drives to pay the normal market rate unless they are regularly assigned to a location which doesn’t charge for parking. I might give an exception to folks like bus drivers and garbage collectors who come in when transit hasn’t started running, but anyone with a 7-6 or 9-5 schedule can take transit.

  • calwatch

    Parking cash out was only implemented by the City in 2018 for some MOUs, and is a negotiated benefit. The city would prefer to give parking rather than pay because pay is pensionable, and the CalPERS “tax” on $100 of parking is $0 while for pay would be 25% or more (employer contribution plus paying down the UAAL). Parking is not pensionable and I don’t believe cash out should be either, but a $100 a month pay increase would be pensionable.

  • All cities should have reasonable, financially sustainable pension formulas. It seems strange that such a small adjustment in how people are paid would elicit such concern. It definitely speaks to the larger problem. Public servants retiring at 55 with CalPERS pensions isn’t sustainable, but that’s the system we have for the most part, except newer hires.

  • Asher Of LA

    Strongly agree with the editorial, but there’s a hitch in that Santa Monica has way too much parking built. Market rates will not be close to actual construction and opportunity costs. There may be so much space that you can’t even charge for it without leaving spaces empty – and charging people while many spaces are empty will be felt as dumb and cruel.

    But, Santa Monica has already embraced the solution once before: convert parking to more valuable uses. They did this with the Bike Center, and it was a great success, garnering far more revenue as well as social value than the parking it replaced.

    This approach needs to be multiplied – convert ALL ground floor sidewalk facing spaces to small scale retail (they may have already done that somewhat? Not sure); investigate converting rooftops to restaurants/bars/stores.

    I did a data science project on their parking, as has Juan Matute, so I’m pretty familiar with their setup.

  • Transiting LA

    A somewhat related thing that I’ve wondered about is policies on reimbursing staff for work-related travel. (This arises not just for staff of governments themselves, but also for funded travel by staff of their grantees and contractors.) Do any governments in LA County have policies that, say, they won’t pay for mileage and parking for an off-site meeting if transit would have been a reasonable alternative?

  • Sirinya Matute

    The devil is in the details. Thanks for this analysis. Even I wasn’t aware.

  • Tricia Crane

    It’s only a benefit because City Council negotiates it. By contrast no employee at UCLA gets free parking. Not one. Not even the dean.

  • calwatch

    There’s a con to this though, in that most government employees in the big agencies are paid for by the hour, even relatively senior managers, by union contract. The same goes for grantees and contractors. Therefore the individual is expected to use the fastest mode possible to get there, so transit would not be an option unless it would be faster than driving. Also the reimbursements of transit trips can be interesting, although with TAP one could at least print the record of the trip.

  • calwatch

    Well the unions asked for it, and generally the fringe benefits negotiated by the unions are extended to management. And the City has felt that rather than paying a 20-30% “tax” on pay increases, they would rather give out “free” parking.

    You are seeing more cities play games with compensation, though, recognizing that pensionability is an issue. More cities are giving one time “signing bonuses” upon ratification of union contracts, which do two things – help mask the total cost of the employee since these bonuses are not in the published pay scales (although they are listed after the fact to the State Controller and for the PRA responses to organizations like Transparent California) and are not pensionable since they are not an ongoing obligation like base pay would be. The other option is to buy down health insurance more, or use a percentage basis rather than the traditional flat contribution or family based contribution. When Rick Cole attacked Transparent California for pointing out the total cost of its compensation, I responded that Santa Monica has several pay practices that make W-2 wage and salary payout less comparable to the private sector, and one is that Santa Monica used a percentage buydown of its health insurance, meaning someone with a “Cadillac” PPO insurance plan could cost the city thousands of dollars more a year than someone getting Kaiser, which has been consistently rated one of the best insurers in the country.

  • Transiting LA

    If one tried to craft a policy like this, the relative speed of travel times (among other things) would definitely have to get factored into defining which mode was a “reasonable alternative.”

    How reimbursement for transit would go is definitely interesting. As you say, there’s the TAP record, and I’ve heard of employers not requiring a receipt for small expenses (e.g. under $5, which would cover round-trip Metro fare). Relatedly, it occurs to me that for personal auto mileage, there’s likely only the employee’s word to prove that they drove their car on a certain trip, so I guess one could argue that transit should be treated similarly. Lastly, there’s the simplest possibility, that the employee has a monthly pass, in which case there’d be no additional cost to reimburse for any individual trip.

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