ST. PETE BEACH – How much are visitors willing to pay to park and enjoy St. Pete Beach?

City commissioners decided to raise the city’s parking rates for beach access from $2.25 to $2.75 an hour on first reading and suggested that rate may go to $3 an hour in October for the start of tourist season.

Commissioner Terry Finnerty favored adopting the higher rate immediately.

“I’ve been going down to the beach at night, because tourist season is over,” Finnerty said. “It is amazing how many people are down on the beach, coming in buses and cars. It doesn’t matter how much you charge. You can charge whatever you want; they are going to pay it. It’s just absolutely crazy down there at night. I’m thinking if we are going to change it let’s do it now, so we don’t have to change it twice.”

With Clearwater raising its parking rates to $3 an hour and Madeira Beach to $2.50, and Treasure Island currently at $2, Mayor Al Johnson said, “We’re still not the highest priced. I think the $2.75 makes sense.”

However, Commissioner Melinda Pletcher said she thinks the city should adopt the $3 an hour rate.

Commissioners hope the rate increase will offset a decline in the number of paid hours, which city staff believes is because technology allows beachgoers to keep better track of time.

Vincent Tenaglia, city administrative services director, told commissioners staff estimates each 25-cent increase in the parking rate will generate about $250,000 in additional general fund revenue.

“The estimate of the projected amount of funds that may be collected is contingent upon fairly stable tourism activity, seasonal factors, and price sensitivity,” he said.

“The estimate reflects recent experience, including a 6.8 percent decline in paid hours in fiscal year 2017,” he said. “Utilization of more precise technology has contributed to this decline. Payments via mobile apps increased 35 percent year-over-year,” he said

Tenaglia explained 10 years ago, when pay stations were first installed, folks just swiped their credit card and pressed the max button. “More often than not, probably it had a lot of folks overpaying compared to the actual time they had on the beach,” he said.

“Now you have the cellphones (apps) that lends itself to a more precise estimate of how long you will be out there. If you are not sure how long you will be on the beach, you just go with an hour and then if you will be there longer you just go to the app and add the extra time,” he explained. “New technology will bring down the paid hours to a more precise number. And in time it will stabilize to a number expected to be seen for the foreseeable future.”

Commissioner Melinda Pletcher suggested the fee be raised to $3 to match Clearwater. She added the city could even adopt a half-day rate, using $3 an hour as a base, so a 4-hour visit would be $12, “which is nothing to go to the beach and have all the amenities that we provide to them.”

Johnson added, “We will know our parking rates are too high when we go down to Pass-A-Grille on a Sunday afternoon and there will be empty spaces. I don’t think you will ever get there.”

Ultimately, the board agreed with Commissioner Rick Falkenstein’s idea to determine how an increase to $2.75 works through summer and then consider adding an additional 25 cents for the start of tourist season in October.

Falkenstein also suggested the city raise its fine on illegally parked vehicles in side-street zones. The current fine is $40 for every two hours an infraction takes place.

“Raising the cost of the tickets is absolutely critical, because somewhere along the line we have to have enforcement. We are raising the rates to pay for enforcement, trash pickup, maintenance of our city. I also think it’s reasonable to have illegal parking go up to $50,” Pletcher said.

Johnson added that instead of $40 in two hour increments, maybe the city should charge $80 so enforcement doesn’t have to come back as often.

City Manager Wayne Saunders advised that staff could prepare an ordinance with an increase to the city’s parking fine schedule, but any rate change will have to be adopted separately. Staff may present it to the commission by the end of June.

Meanwhile, city commissioners are scheduled to hold a second reading on the parking fee rate change at their June 12 meeting.

Commissioners directed city staff to dedicate additional revenues raised by the parking meter rate increase, or about $500,000, toward beautification efforts.