Of frogs, scorpions and parking meters

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The Mayor Elorza parking meter economic plague currently destroying Thayer Street local businesses reminds me of an updated version of the old fable about the scorpion that asked a frog for transportation across a river.

 

Initially, the frog refused for fear the scorpion would sting him as they crossed, then agreed when the scorpion assured him he would never do that because both of them would drown. But halfway across, the scorpion struck, and as they both were drowning, the frog asked: “Why?” The scorpion replied: “I’m from City Hall.”

If asked, no practical business owner – understanding the negative impact of these flawed parking meters on customers and the real total cost of these meters – would support their installation. Unlike the naïve frog, they would know that both local businesses and Providence would be big losers.

The Elorza parking meters are fast becoming an icon of municipal incompetence.

So far, Thayer Street business owners report that, because of the meters driving away their customers, business is down 40 to 70 percent. Two well-known businesses have been forced to close; more are considering closing; and some half-dozen stores are vacant.

Verizon reported that it was closing after its monthly phone sales fell from a high of 150 to 50, “if lucky.” ZuZu’s Petals dress shop ended 25 years on Thayer Street after it was engulfed in customers’ meter complaints. The Avon Theater, which opened in 1938, reports its popular matinees are now almost empty.

Elorza, already collecting the third-highest commercial property tax in the nation, contends that what he hopes to be significant new revenue from the parking meters is needed to help Providence’s fiscal morass. There is good reason to believe that a total forensic accounting would prove this is tooth-fairy thinking.

A total accounting would have to include the cost of the new high-tech meters, outsourced meter-systems management, the major loss of various current taxes because of reduced and failed businesses, repair and maintenance, meter readers, and adjudication of ticket challenges. And there is the possibility of the costs of litigation regarding damage to established businesses, including financial problems caused by failure to maintain loan-to-value levels.

Also, besides the loss of tax revenue, a cost/benefit analysis would clearly show further loss of the attractiveness of Providence to new business development, loss of attractiveness to visitors, and loss of attractiveness to present and future homeowners and renters, putting downward pressure on real estate values.

Compounding these problems, the parking meters have technical flaws, generating a multitude of complaints, including failure to work with credit cards as advertised, eating credit cards, complexity of using them and random displays of erroneous time-up signals to meter checkers.

None of this is news. Large and small cities across the country, and in Canada and England, have reported similar complaints – all apparently either not investigated or brushed aside by Providence City Hall.

Unfortunately, all complaints so far from Thayer Street business owners have received similar treatment. However, the owners have invested too much of their lives in Thayer Street not to persist.

More than 80 merchants and 3,500 customers have protested the Elorza parking meters in separate petitions, telling the mayor to remove them. Apparently he needs to be told again. And, if necessary, again. And again. Email the mayor at mayor@providenceri.gov.

Despite what some at City Hall may think, Thayer Street business owners are not naïve frogs. And Mayor Elorza should not want to be remembered as a scorpion.

KENNETH R. DULGARIAN is president of Dulgarian Properties, a real estate developer.