Overstaying your welcome in downtown Camas is about to get a bit more expensive.
As of July 1, parking fines in the city’s historic downtown business district will double, jumping from $15 to $30.
The Camas City Council approved the increase during its regular meeting on Monday, June 6, but city leaders have been mulling a parking-fine increase for more than two years.
The city’s Parking Advisory Committee first broached the topic in January 2020, amid concerns that Camas’ longtime $15 parking fine — in place since at least 1972, according to Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey — was no longer preventing people from violating the city’s parking limits throughout the downtown core.
In January 2020, Jennifer Senescu, who heads both the Parking Advisory Committee and the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce, suggested raising the parking fine from $15 to $30.
“That’s not a lot if you work in Portland (where parking fines) are excessive,” Senescu told parking committee members on Jan. 14, 2020.
Though the Camas City Council was set to vote on the proposed parking fine increase in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in that plan, Lackey said.
“This is a re-introduction,” Lackey told the Council during its regular meeting on Monday, June 9. “The parking committee entertained the topic of what the fine should be for parking downtown (in 2020) and voted to increase from $15 to $30. That came to you in March 2020. Then COVID hit and all non-essential businesses closed and the city went into emergency status. Two years went by, and as we come out of COVID, the topic is coming back around for a Council decision.”
Before the pandemic shutdowns, Camas police were issuing around 1,000 to 1,500 parking tickets in the downtown area every year, Lackey told parking committee members in January 2020. In 2019, the majority of those parking tickets went to first-time offenders. Among repeat offenders in 2019: around 80 tickets were for second violations, 25 were for third violations; fewer than 40 tickets went to people who had between four and seven parking tickets that year; two offenders had 12 parking tickets in 2019; and one person had accumulated 16 mostly unpaid parking tickets.
“Obviously, the ones that get more just don’t care,” Lackey said in 2020. “The top (violators) didn’t pay almost any of them.”
Lackey added that the parking fines are not meant to be a profitable business for the city but are, rather, a “service designed to turnover those downtown parking spots for economic growth.”
“It almost costs us more to write a ticket,” Lackey told the Council in May. “Right now, it (costs around) 80 cents to $1, which doesn’t take into account the staff person’s time, salary or benefits. It’s not a money maker for the city.”
According to the Downtown Camas Association (DCA), there are 520 parking spots in downtown Camas, excluding the Second Street area. The majority of these spots have a 2-hour time limit, but there are a few 3-hour parking spaces on Northeast Cedar Street and some 6-hour, 1-hour, 30-minute and 10-minute “pick-up” parking spots.
The downtown area also has a few parking spots that have no time limits and the city offers a free parking lot at the corner of Northeast Seventh Avenue and Northeast Adams Street.
Though the city has charged a $15 parking fine since at least the early 1970s, according to Lackey, Camas did not enforce parking when COVID restrictions were in place.
“It was a different environment during a major part of the pandemic,” the city’s finance director, Cathy Huber Nickerson, said. “We really didn’t do much in the way of parking fees or assessing penalties.”
“Our biggest concern is when employees park in those (time-limited) spots,” said DCA Executive Director Carrie Schulstad. “When we had that long period of time when it wasn’t enforced, they got really comfortable parking close to those businesses.”
Now that the city’s code enforcement officer is ticketing people who overstay their parking times in downtown Camas, members of the public are starting to speak up, Huber Nickerson told city council members in early May.
“We have a lot more tickets coming through with our new officer. And the response we’re getting from the public is not very nice,” she said.
Huber Nickerson suggested during a Council workshop in early May that officials may want to consider waiting a few months to implement any new parking fines.
“I understand what’s being said, but I also understand there’s a process and that people think it’s going a little bit too fast,” Huber Nickerson said.
Schulstad told city council members this week that her business-advocacy group was in favor of increasing the parking fines in the downtown area, but suggested the Council consider giving first-time offenders a pass.
“Our concern is, if a person is coming to our downtown for the first time … getting a $30 ticket is a lot. Might be enough that people might not be comfortable coming back,” Schulstad said.
Lackey said Camas police could ask their software vendor if there is a way to change the system to allow first-time offenders a pass, but cautioned it would likely cost the city more money.
“We can inquire with the company, but right now it’s something that is not available,” Lackey said.
Most Council members agreed in May that they were comfortable raising the parking fines from $15 to $30. Councilmember Bonnie Carter suggested starting the new fees on July 1, and asked if the city was doing enough to advertise its free parking lot – a former mill employee lot – to residents and downtown visitors.
Schulstad said the DCA does have a parking map to help guide visitors to the city’s free, untimed parking spaces in the downtown area.
“There is no parking crisis in Camas,” Senescu, the Chamber and parking committee president, added. “It’s just a matter of people not wanting to walk three blocks. You can go a block and a half over (from the heart of downtown Camas) and find parking.”
Councilmember Marilyn Boerke said in May – and again this week – that she believed the jump from $15 to $30 was too much.
“I support … raising the tickets, but I don’t support $30,” Boerke said in early May. “To double it just feels much bigger than $25. I’m lending my support to $25 instead of $30.”
Boerke held fast to that conviction throughout the Council’s deliberations, and was the sole Council member to vote “no” on the resolution passed Monday night, which will raise parking fines to $30 per violation, effective July 1.
DCA asked city council to reconsider jump from $15 to $30
The DCA’s executive director sent notice to the city council Monday morning saying that, while the association and many downtown merchants agreed the city should raise the cost of its downtown parking fines, they did not agree with the proposal to double the fine from $15 to $30.
“The DCA is in agreement with the Parking Committee that the cost of a parking fine should increase,” Schulstad wrote in the email sent to city councilors and the mayor on Monday, June 6, about 10 hours before the Council’s regular meeting. “Customer experience is key and we want to be thoughtful and fair to our first time visitors while making it less attractive for employees and frequent visitors to overstay parking spots. Our downtown businesses work very hard to be successful and having customers filling parking spaces is the best choice for downtown revenue generation.”
Schulstad said National Main Street data indicates that every parking space in a downtown district like Camas equates to around $700 in daily sales for local merchants.
“That is significant and we want to support the turnover of parking spaces to maintain merchant revenue,” Schulstad told the Council in her email.
Though the DCA and city officials noted many downtown employees were staying in timed parking spots too long during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, Schulstad said a return to more in-person shopping and the city’s return to ticketing people who had overstayed their welcome in downtown parking spots seems to have shifted many employees; parking habits.
“Now that parking enforcement has resumed, those of us who work downtown have seen a shift in employee parking from the downtown core to the free parking areas on side streets,” she told council members.
The DCA had wanted to see a tiered parking fine approach that would waive the first violation, charge $15 for a second violation and charge more than double that for subsequent violations.
“The first-time shopper or diner or movie goer or salon patron would not be penalized with a large ticket the first time. While we have now learned that a warning cannot be given as it does not track the person’s first ticket, we would amend our recommendation and suggest a nominal first-time fine, $5-$10, that would still put the person in the system and track their tickets,” Schulstad wrote to Council on Monday.
If a tiered approach was not possible, the DCA director wrote, the association would prefer to see a “flat fine of $25 be considered.”
We know from retail psychology and retail pricing strategies that $29 is more palatable than $30,” Schulstad stated. “The fines we are discussing mainly affect our downtown shopping district where retail pricing strategies are already at work and should be considered as part of the entire downtown experience.”
The DCA and many downtown Camas merchants worry the increase to $30 parking fines will discourage would-be downtown visitors from returning to Camas after they receive their first ticket.
“Even a $25 ticket is a lot for many people, particularly with current market conditions,” Schulstad stated. “The elderly on a fixed income, teenagers, people needing to watch their budget carefully may be more likely to shop online than to spend gas to drive to downtown Camas. Yet, these are people we want to welcome and include in our downtown. Receiving a large ticket after coming to spend time and money in our town is a deterrent and could keep people from coming back.”
The DCA director added that, while the city does offer free parking in its Seventh Avenue lot, many community members and downtown visitors are not aware the lot even exists – and people with mobility challenges may have a hard time traversing the walk from the uphill lot to the city’s downtown shops.
“Winter months with rain and early darkness also contribute to employees not wanting to park there,” Schulstad added.
The DCA leader added that the city’s $30 ticket may cost a lot more for an individual who cannot pay their fine at Camas City Hall within the two-week time period.
“The cost of the ticket is only one factor. There is an additional credit card processing fee of $2.50. That one $30 ticket is now $32.50 for the person who cannot go to City Hall to pay the fine in person,” she noted in her email to the Council. “And, if you miss the two-week payment window, perhaps because you are a visitor on a road trip, the ticket amount increases by $25. Now that ticket is $55 (plus) $2.50, (which would cost) $57.50 (for) an out-of-town shopper that doesn’t have a checkbook, envelope and stamps at the ready to mail their fine back to the City. And, of course, the U.S. Postal Service does not recommend that cash be sent through the mail. The additional $2.50 charge becomes the most expedient option.”
“In many communities, this additional processing fee has been incorporated into the cost of the fine so as not to further burden the person who wants to pay their fine. This, to the DCA, is another reason to consider a $25 ticket, if an alternative tiered system cannot be considered,” Schulstad stated.
She concluded: “In the current environment with the combination of inflation and gas prices, credit card processing fee, and web payment experience, we firmly believe that raising the ticket price to $30 would be detrimental to our downtown shopping district. This sentiment was reinforced by many merchants in our last downtown merchant meeting. Customer experience is key, and we want to be thoughtful and fair to our first-time visitors while making it less attractive for employees and frequent visitors to take up customer spots. Our downtown businesses work very hard to be successful and having customers filling parking spaces is the best choice for downtown revenue generation.”
Editor’s Note: This article was edited on Friday, June 10, 2022, to include the Downtown Camas Association (DCA)’s comments sent to the Camas City Council via email on Monday, June 6, 2022.