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Council revisiting request for free parking for 'handicapped' residents

'This is not something we should ignore,' says Coun. Sarah Valiquette-Thompson
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Last week, council committee answered a citizen’s concern in the most modern of fashion. In essence, they said, ‘There’s an app for that.’

Many were not impressed.

A petition landed at city hall last week with names of 27 citizens who asked city council to allow free parking in all of the city’s metered parking spaces for those with accessible permits issued by the Ministry of Transportation (MTO).

“Although there will be a loss of meter revenue, the benefit to the local merchants will be greater,” D.H. Hollands said in a letter to council. “Handicapped drivers will give their (business) to the local merchants instead of the large box stores where parking is free.”

Despite that plea, council committee decided a new smartphone app would answer those concerns without adding more accessible parking or granting free access to disabled citizens at all metered spots.

Mayor Steve Clarke noted the app, initiated by council last year, was recently approved by the city’s Parking Working Group and endorsed by the Downtown Orillia Management Board (DOMB). The new app, which would allow citizens to pay for parking and receive warnings when the meter is about to expire, is expected to be ready to use this summer.

But that idea did not go over well in the community. On Monday night, several city councillors said they have heard from disgruntled downtown business owners and citizens who believe the app is not the answer.

“A lot of concerned people came forward this week (with concerns),” said Coun. Sarah Valiquette-Thompson. “I would like to look at the opportunity for allowing accessible parking to be free with the downtown providing input. Would the DOMB put any dollars into that program?”

She said many people were concerned about a technology-based solution. “My concern about only going with the app is not everyone would have that technology,” said Valiquette-Thompson. “Given that, I feel like (we) should look at exploring” other options and ask the DOMB for input.

Clarke, chair of the Parking Working Group, said three downtown merchants and DOMB staff were involved in discussions related to this matter and stressed concerns of downtown store owners were considered.

Coun. Ted Emond said he was not in favour of revisiting the issue. “To my chagrin, I have now started to read social media comments and on this particular one, conversation quickly evolved from providing free parking at all places to those with accessible permits to a desire to have free parking in the downtown for everyone. That’s not the issue we are debating.”

Emond also noted the DOMB had a “member on the parking working group who was quite vocal in expressing his opinion.”

Valiquette-Thompson said she recognized the efforts of the working group, but said council has a responsibility to listen to concerns and complaints. “This is not something we should ignore,” she said. “This is a topic of conversation for many business owners downtown. I do think we should have input from the DOMB.”

In the end, council opted to postpone a decision until its April 9 meeting. Coun. Tim Lauer was in favour of the delay – not only to allow an opportunity to provide more input but also to, possibly, have more input from city councillors. Prior to Monday night’s discussion, Coun. Pat Hehn and Coun. Ralph Cipolla declared a conflict of interest and didn’t participate in the debate because their spouses have accessible parking permits.

“I also think we should maybe use (the postponement) to investigate this idea of having a conflict because a member of your family has an accessible pass,” said Lauer. “My wife uses parking meters and parks and all kinds of things we decide on a regular basis. I’m not sure this would qualify as a conflict.”

According to the staff report tabled at the Feb. 26 council committee meeting, there are 18,560 residential addresses in Orillia (within the L3V postal code) and, according to the MTO, there are 3,209 accessible parking permits issued within this area, which is about 17% of the households.

Approximately 5% of all metered municipally owned parking spaces downtown are designated as accessible parking, the report notes. Allowing an estimated 17% of the user base to park for free in municipal parking spots would have an adverse impact on parking revenues; it is estimated that this would have a net impact of a 12% drop in meter revenue.

Orillia has 1,095 municipally-owned parking spaces in the downtown area, with 704 of these spaces available for metered parking. Of the 704 metered spaces, there are 181 metered on-street parking spaces with an additional eight accessible on-street parking spaces, and 490 metered off-street parking spaces with an additional 25 off-street accessible parking spaces.