Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Downtown parking, road planning, and UGA's use of services

I wanted to write about how downtown parking is an issue that is really of growing concern, and I also wanted to give food for thought on a couple of other issues, road planning and the University of Georgia's exemption from property taxes.

DOWNTOWN PARKING

The downtown parking scheme hasn't been discussed a lot in the newspapers lately, but it certainly stays a hot topic with the denizens of the downtown area. Jackson Street Books is still encouraging a little civil disobedience with a sign promising a discount for discarding parking tickets without paying for them. Their objection is the recent redesignation of a number of two-hour street parking spaces into one-hour spaces because one hour generally isn't long enough to conduct business or enjoy a visit downtown, which is true. There is much that can't be done comfortably in an hour, such as meeting a party for lunch. The owner of Athens Jewelers on Clayton Street told me that she can't have a normal meeting with vendors because they are concerned about their parking meters, and an employee of Walker's Pub told me that the staff frequently leave to move their cars around (which supposedly the employees of Adam's Optics do, too).

Parking is indeed inadequate for the uses we make of downtown. The College Avenue parking deck fills up, which is why downtown employees are parking in one-hour spaces on the street to begin with, and perhaps the Classic Center deck is too far away from many places (and charges a flat fee rather than by the hour). The new parking deck being planned for Lumpkin Street is too little too late since parking has always been strained. If parking could be made adequate, then perhaps a lot of downtown businesses wouldn't fold so quickly, and it would be an easier place to visit. Stores and restaurants have a patronage that is somewhat limited to the university community (who already has another reason to be close to downtown) and those that work in downtown businesses (and already have a parking space from the limited supply of reserved public and private spaces). People who live and work outside of the downtown area are hardly going there to visit for lunch and they aren't encouraged to shop much either.

The metered parking scheme is by no means harsh. The basic ticket is $3, which is cheaper than all-day parking in any garage. If you add money to your meter when the hour has expired, your ticket is $5 (says someone at Walker's Pub). Penalties such as booting are directed at accumulating unpaid tickets, but as far as I know you can pay all the $3 tickets you want. So in effect we have a system with a flat $3 fee for parking all day, which is a pretty good deal. Why pay in the meter if you know you're going to be parked longer than an hour?

So parking is very limited, and there is little incentive to leave once you get a space (which is basically a good thing). Are there any solutions? The bright idea of changing two-hour spaces into one-hour spaces may help make more spaces available, but at that same time that discourages a number of people from coming downtown in the first place. I also don't think that there is a chance of getting a good number of garages built either; the financial figures for that new parking facility being planned suggest that those parking spaces take a very long time to pay for themselves, so any accelerated effort would probably have to be paid with new taxes rather than parking fees. Does anyone have ideas for solutions? I certainly can't advocate razing buildings and clearing lots for cheap parking. Limited parking is really just the nature of the beast.

ROAD PLANNING

Effective road planning in Athens is hampered by short-sightedness. This has been weighing on my mind a bit because every time it comes up in the news it seems that the NIMBY (not in my backyard) arguments usually win. For example, in years past there was a proposal for a new east-west corridor north of the current Perimeter Highway. It would have been very useful for residents and visitors, but it was scrapped because of all the objections, and of course the county commissioners in those districts have to be responsive to their voters, even when the result might be bad overall for the community. However, people will still complain about the congestion on Atlanta Highway and Mitchell Bridge Road, which could be relieved by such a new route, and the remaining solution seems to be to stop new development. The NIMBY arguments turn into a desire to exclude new residents and new growth, which of course is only going to encourage sprawl rather than compact, efficient development suited for a growing urban environment.

In addition to objecting to new major roads, there are objections to certain short roads that would connect subdivisions. These objections violate the planning goals that were set when the subdivisions were approved for development. (Certain subdivisions have had specific plans to later build roads connecting them to other subdivisions.) The advantage of allowing through traffic is that congestion is relieved from certain corridors and intersections, often more to the benefit of nearby residents than far-flung visitors. Residents may add that they had no knowledge of the plans to connect their subdivision in the future, but the wrongdoing here is between the developer and the home buyers, not the county government and the buyers. Of course, the commissioners that make the exceptions to the plans are serving in a different election term than their predecessors who approved the plans. It is not a straightforward claim that allowing through traffic is bad. Studies that compare crime rates between connected and isolated subdivisions have conflicting results, but clearly, though, there is some good in establishing a town with efficient traffic patterns.

THE UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA HAS UNTAXABLE PROPERTY

I wanted to touch on this issue because it has reared its ugly head again in the editorial-page discussions over the future of the Navy Supply Corps School site. A frequent complaint from elected officials and citizens is that it hurts the county government to have all this UGA property inside the county that is exempt from property taxes. The implication or sometimes direct accusation is that UGA uses county services that it doesn't pay for, but this is simply not true. A weaker version of the argument is that UGA benefits from the county without paying taxes, but the local community also benefits from UGA's presence without paying tuition.

Those that argue that UGA uses county services without paying for them need to actually name the specific services they have in mind. The complaints essentially reduce to a desire for greater financial resources for the county. Yes, it would be nice to tax UGA property, just as it would be nice to raise the millage rate or maybe have Santa Claus deliver a ton of gold bricks to the courthouse. Any issue here should not be about not paying but about balancing services, just as Athens-Clarke has to balance its services and tax districts with Winterville. What services does UGA use without paying for?

Roads? Yes, there are some county roads that go through campus, but there are also some campus roads open to the public. UGA maintains its own roads, and it maintains the sidewalks along many county roads. It pays the county to maintain the traffic lights along its campus roads.

Water and sewer? UGA has its own utilities department that maintains its water and sewer infrastructure. I believe it pays the county for incoming water and outgoing sewage. If UGA is unfairly benefitting from this arrangement, then only the county could be blamed for not charging the actual cost of its services, but I have never heard this pointed to as a particular issue.

Law enforcement? State funds operate UGA's own police department. In fact, the UGA police serve Athens-Clarke and many other counties with its bomb disposal unit, and it is paid for by a complicated arrangement with state agencies. Fire protection? That is an interesting one. I had heard about UGA not paying for fire protection and it does not have its own fire department. I wrote to Tom Jackson of the Public Affairs office at UGA and he replied, "While UGA does not pay the county directly for fire services, we have provided the county with the land for Fire Station #7 on Barnett Shoals on a 50-year lease with a rent of $1 per year." So UGA is now providing valuable compensation for fire protection.
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Anyway, back to the downtown parking issue, I am quite interested in what solutions you may propose, or whether "solutions" should be proposed at all.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

hear hear on the parking problem. Possible solutions: 1) increase availability and convenience of public transportation. 2) Require UGA freshmen to leave their cars at home. 3)raise ticket fines to $20; maybe i can never find a space because I choose to obey the so-called parking regulations and others don't

hillary said...

Parking: I don't usually find it to be as much of a problem in the day. But then, I tend to use the public transportation then. I would be in favor of businesses that have lots posting accurate descriptions of their towing policies, for the paranoid among us (including me).

UGA/property taxes: I don't think the argument is so much that UGA is using up valuable county resources without paying for them. What it really is is that there is a limited amount of land available in this county, and UGA takes up quite a bit of it that would otherwise be generating property tax revenue.

Adrian said...

So the question is, what is wrong with UGA taking up that land? Athens-Clarke County is not providing services on that land. There could be something wrong with it, I just don't know what it is. Sure, it can't be taxed. So what? ACC can't tax land that belongs to the federal government or another county either. It probably can't tax land that belongs to the Clarke County School District but it has to provide fire protection it.

hillary said...

So what? The fact that it can't be taxed means everyone else's property taxes are higher, for one thing, which makes homeowners generally pissy about the school district having issues, since they think, "Damn it. I pay enough in property taxes."

Adrian said...

So, there's a complaint that this land isn't taxed. Is anyone actually advocating that it should be taxed? And if so, would they want the county to take over services?

Many counties have taxation challenges. It would be nice if everyone were rich and had giant homes that could generate awesome revenues, but there is reality to face. Fulton County had demographic disparities, so citizens in the northern part started a new city this month to replace the county's taxation and services. Madison County has only one large store, an Ingle's supermarket, and very little valuable commercial property to help its tax base. Rabun County has a large portion that is state park land that can never be developed commercially.

Clarke County has a lot of valuable commercial property. Its residential properties have higher values than similar properties in many other counties. The value of all this property is to a great extent made possible by the presence of UGA. Sure, it would be nice to tax UGA's property, but how would that be fair?

Adrian said...

So, there's a complaint that this land isn't taxed. Is anyone actually advocating that it should be taxed? And if so, would they want the county to take over services?

Many counties have taxation challenges. It would be nice if everyone were rich and had giant homes that could generate awesome revenues, but there is reality to face. Fulton County had demographic disparities, so citizens in the northern part started a new city this month to replace the county's taxation and services. Madison County has only one large store, an Ingle's supermarket, and very little valuable commercial property to help its tax base. Rabun County has a large portion that is state park land that can never be developed commercially.

Clarke County has a lot of valuable commercial property. Its residential properties have higher values than similar properties in many other counties. The value of all this property is to a great extent made possible by the presence of UGA. Sure, it would be nice to tax UGA's property, but how would that be fair?

Adrian said...

I could possibly concede that UGA should pay some amount of school taxes if it doesn't already. There are a few children that live on campus and attend schools in the Clarke County School District. The flip side, of course, is that the presence of UGA affects the county's demographics such that a lower proportion of tax-paying households have schoolchildren than the average county without a college town.

hillary said...

Nah. I'm not arguing UGA's land should be taxed. I'm just saying I understand why people don't want them sucking up more land, especially land that was previously taxed (not the Navy School, but several downtown properties).

Jmac said...

Good post Adrian, particularly with regard to parking. I'd like to see the majority of parking meters switched to two-hour blocs, but that's just me.

And I'm with Hillary on UGA's land grab. Back in my print days, we kicked around the idea of doing a story on how higher education's pursuit of more land was hindering funding for K-12, but we never really got going on it.

So, like Hillary I don't think UGA should be taxed for its land, but I do think it isn't necessarily a bad idea to encourage UGA to look outside of Athens-Clarke County for expansion ideas (like all of that land in Oconee County). It would mean more jobs in the outlying areas, preserving (and possibly freeing up) taxable land in Athens-Clarke County and fostering good partnership with the neighboring areas. I think an Oconee County campus of UGA is a good idea.

There is a flaw in some of your reasoning about outlying counties which face similar problems (like Madison County with its limited commercial base), and it comes from the fact that those counties have drastically smaller populations - and larger geographical areas - than Athens-Clarke County. So while Madison County may only have a handful of commercial zones and properties able to be taxed, it also has a much smaller school district. Clarke County has two high schools which have a combined student population of roughly 2,000, while Madison County, for instance, has one high school with a population of anywhere from 700 to 900 (I believe).

Clarke County has a lot of valuable commercial property. Its residential properties have higher values than similar properties in many other counties. The value of all this property is to a great extent made possible by the presence of UGA.

I think it can be partially attributed to UGA's presence, but I don't think as largely as you think. Lots of counties have high value residential properties, but they are typically spread out because of more space. In Athens-Clarke County they are clustered together and there is a distinct lack of adequate moderate-priced housing (this, to be fair, has been shifting in the past few years). For the most part, you're looking at a $145,000 house or a $225,000 or higher one.

I think we give UGA too much credit when we say it is primarily responsible for the high-end houses in the area.

DoubleDawgDareYa said...

Exactly hillary.

Specifically with the Navy School, I can definitely understand the position that we shouldn't miss this opportunity to add a large amount of property to the tax rolls.

I don't think that anyone on here or anywhere where reason is practiced is arguing that we should tax existing UGA property. For one thing, I'm pretty sure that would require an amendment to the Georgia constitution. And then of course there's all of the good policy reasons you enumerated.

All we're saying, or all I'm saying, anyway, is that while it obviously benefits Athens to have UGA here (it's verily our raison d'etre, as anything more than a one-light town anyway), we have to consider whether a continued expansion of actual UGA property is beneficial, given the current private/public balance of land ownership in the county.

Although I'm open to any well-reasoned arguments, I'm currently in the mixed-use camp as far as the Navy School goes.

Adrian said...

I understand the concern of losing existing commercial land from the tax base, and so does the Board of Regents. Look at where the new OIIT office was built -- Oconee County. Consider the plight of Bibb County which decided to put several projects on hold when R.J. Reynolds announced the closing of the Brown & Williamson plant, which was the single biggest taxpayer there. Losing commercial property is certainly a concern.

My reasoning was not at all flawed in pointing to the challenges in other counties. My argument about the taxation challenge is that Clarke County is in a relatively good position to collect property tax revenue, though obviously not perfect since the need for services is intense. What is going on in our neighboring counties is that they are accomodating drastic yearly increases in population, and it is challenging to finance the expansion of school systems and the construction of water and sewer lines. Clarke County has a much lower rate of growth since it is so thoroughly developed, so its growth challenges aren't as intense. What makes the growth harder for neighboring counties is that they are adding many residential properties and little else since the new residents are going to work in Clarke or Gwinnett counties. Those homes that are selling in the $100K-$150K range have homestead exemptions and don't contribute enough to the tax revenue to make the growth comfortable. In fact, Jackson County recently passed a land-use plan requiring minimum square footages and attached garages in order to ensure that only the more valuable homes are built. (The lower wage earners are no longer welcome in unincorporated Jackson County.)

So the point is not that neighboring counties have smaller populations; it's that they're rapidly growing without the form of tax base that Clarke County has. Now, the flip side is that quite apparently the service usage in urban areas is intense; this is evidenced by the fact that cities have relatively huge amounts of commercial property to help their tax base (in comparison to their surrounding bedroom counties) yet still complain about not being able to adequately fund their services.

Adrian said...

Also, the presence of UGA has to be given quite a bit of credit for higher housing prices. Go look at the house prices advertised in the Five Points area sometime, or check out apartment prices and see how mileage from campus affects them. I'm not saying that UGA's presence is the only attraction to a central location, but in addition to it being a major one in the present, its presence historically defined where the community would grow and develop to begin with. Granted, we now seem to be seeing the highest home prices in Oconee County, and this is because recent years have seen a drop in the Clarke County School District's reputation.

Anyway, I wasn't even considering residential property when I said that "The value of all this property is to a great extent made possible by the presence of UGA." From what I've heard about the real estate market, properties located near campus are quite valuable simply because they're near campus, and what I generally had in mind when I said that was that UGA's presence provides a central location for businesses and residents to locate, and historically it defined the location of our population center that makes possible taxable commercial properties. If UGA had located where Lexington is now, you simply wouldn't have a downtown district and two hospitals in Clarke County -- they would be in Oglethorpe County.

Jmac said...

That's a good point about the homestead exemptions, and I didn't take that into consideration. I still think, however, the lack of population is what constrains these neighboring counties more than anything. And, considering they are seeing increases in population (Jackson County and Oconee County spring to mind), it is only logical to assume they are seeing increases in their revenues. On top of that, commercial businesses are starting to move out there as well. Jackson County is supposed to be getting two major grocery stores added to it, and Oconee County (and Watkinsville) are wrestling with how to handle the growth they are facing.

I suppose the reason I felt your argument had some flaws in it was because I thought you were directly comparing the finite amount of revenue that can be squeezed from Athens-Clarke County (which does result from UGA's presence) to the lower amounts of revenue in the neighboring counties (which is, in large part, a result of smaller populations). So I suppose I would argue that the potential for increased revenues exists with substantially less barriers in those counties, but the potential for increased revenues in Athens-Clarke County is limited because of UGA and the geographical limitations.

Anyway, I appreciate your clarification about the affect of UGA on housing values. I took your original post to mean that you felt it was the sole reason for the values. With regard to Five Points (as one example of a neighborhood, particularly with its proximity to UGA), do you feel that UGA is the primary reason for the high values of those homes (however absurdly small many of them are)?

I'm curious for the rationale since I'm not totally convinced yet. I don't have a good explanation for why else they'd be higher - I could speculate the political power of the area or perception they are older, more historic homes as well as UGA's location, but I'm not sure.

Jmac said...

One final thing with regard to growth in the neighboring counties - granted things like homestead exemptions and the fact that residential property generates less revenue than commerical property hinders them, isn't much of the investments being made by these counties for things like roads and sewer and water lines able to achieved through loans and grants? That is, borrow to build for the growth, and when the growth comes the revenue will follow to pay off the loan and sustain continued growth?

Just curious.

Adrian said...

Five Points: There are probably different reasons for the popularity of different neighborhoods in the area. It is very obvious that there is a high student demand in areas like Lumpkin Street or Parkway Drive. Then on University Drive or Fortson Drive you have nicer properties in demand by prominent Athenians.

Local government financing: I sure do read a lot of news stories about school boards financing construction with bonds, but I don't know much about the issue. Just as I infer that urban areas have intense service costs from all the grunting and groaning about money from public officials, I also infer that the average new bedroom-community residential property doesn't provide a good payoff to make financing easy. It would be interesting to learn more about this.

Yeah, Jackson County probably isn't struggling like Madison County since it can benefit from the I-85 corridor, but they put those requirements in the land use plan anyway. (There's even a new industrial park with a special tax district where funds will go to two different school districts.)

Adrian said...

I found out I was wrong about the penalties on street parking. Apparently you can accumulate consecutive tickets hour after hour, making it expensive to park on the street for a long time.

Anonymous said...

UGA stores its Bomb Disposal Truck at fire station 7 and in addition to donating the land for that station UGA also gave Clarke Co. Fire its old bomb trailer for free to use for hazmat storage. So yes, UGA has been more than generous to ACC Fire.