– Asheville – During Asheville City Council’s last work session, Budget Manager Taylor Floyd reported staff had initially budgeted as if the city’s parking enterprise fund would resume normal operations post-COVID. However, the old equipment for the parking deck gates, which were past due for replacement, began failing toward the end of 2020. New equipment was supposed to be operational by the end of last year, but the rollout has been glitchy, largely due to software and firewall issues. When asked by Councilwoman Kim Roney if it was fully functional yet, Floyd double-checked and found there were still sporadic hiccups throughout operations.
Roney returned to her concerns about the “$800,000 mistake.” The city’s offering of free parking had formerly been misreported as attributable to intentional COVID and/or recovery decisions. The fact that the parking garage automation had been malfunctioning and not collecting revenues for a long time had not been brought to city council’s attention.
When Councilwoman Gwen Wisler asked if the city had developed an after-action plan, Traffic Director Ken Putnam replied they were pursuing a reimbursement from the vendor. The vendor had told the city they knew how to handle firewalls, but ultimately they did not. Even now, the company’s service department takes about a week to respond to calls. The city has ordered extra gates but, due to supply chain issues, they have yet to arrive. So, the city is attempting to keep them maintained with spare parts. Putnam explained the need for maintenance is great because when the gates don’t work, people get frustrated and crash them. Councilwoman Sage Turner asked about insurance, and Mayor Esther Manheimer expected that making a claim wouldn’t help because the city is self-insured.
Even before the pandemic, revenues for the city’s parking garages were coming in under budget. Shortfalls ran around $1 million for FY19-20 and $2 million for FY20-21, and for the current fiscal year, they’re expected to land around $2.5 million. COVID impacted parking revenues because the city decided not to charge when only essential workers were supposed to be out and about. Furhermore, businesses lost interest in purchasing monthly packages for customers and employees. Another factor was the city rounded parking rates up to the nearest dollar to work with the new automated gatekeeping machinery and, as compensation, offered the first hour of parking free. That would have been more profitable if parkers hadn’t correspondingly started spending less time per visit. Post-pandemic, people remain slow to return to the workplace, and interest in monthly passes has not rebounded.
Even though expenses are also under budget, due to vacancies and deferred maintenance, it is likely the parking fund will not net enough to make its budgeted subsidy to the transit fund this year. Historically, Asheville’s parking fund had provided a healthy annual subsidy. This year, the budgeted $1,576,875 will have to be reduced, because general statutes mandate that the parking fund must cover all its expenses before it may subsidize outside activities.
Having to make do with a smaller subsidy, or none all, is just one of the financial problems the transit department is facing. RATP Dev, the management company with which the city contracts mostly because state law prohibits the government from directly employing unionized workers, has been unable to hire enough drivers – despite ads now offering $18.78/hour training pay, $23.08/hour starting pay, a $2,000 sign-on bonus, and excellent benefits. Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith asked if the management company was a Second-Chance Employer; that is, if they would consider hiring any of the estimated 70 million Americans with criminal records.
RATP Dev has been paying a lot of overtime and reassigning supervisors and maintenance workers to fill driver vacancies, and now planned cancellations of scheduled trips has begun. Floyd explained this tactic: rather than shutting down trips randomly for absentee drivers, it would give riders time to make other arrangements. Now in discussions with the transit company, Floyd expects the city will end up paying for higher driver wages.
The city had budgeted, in accordance with the Transit Master Plan, $1.1 million to expand services in the current fiscal year. This would support extending evening hours and doubling the number of trips on two routes. Needless to say, the city attained neither due to the driver shortage. Although expenditures were also down, due to vacancies and lingering COVID-era caution, the transit budget is on-target to land $55,000 in the hole.
Wisler asked how much revenue the city had lost when the printer of transit passes delivered a month late, thus forcing the city to let would-be holders ride free. Regretting her repetition, she said she wanted to see an after-action report for this, too. Roney, whose bus didn’t show up that day, asked for a tally of missed trips. She thought the city might be able to claim for a reimbursement. Turner also wanted to make vendors who didn’t satisfy the terms of their contracts assume financial responsibility.
Manheimer said if terms were not in the city’s contracts to make vendors liable for breaches, they need to be added. “I think historically, failures like this were not necessarily anticipated, and now, they’re kind of our new normal,” she said. Roney wanted all councilmembers to have a copy of the transit contract and spoke as if she were ready to hire a new management company.
Turner inquired if the county had been asked to help restore some of the city’s losses. She said she had heard county commissioners express an interest in helping the city expand and scale-up transit. City Manager Debra Campbell replied that she is in “consistent conversations” with the county about funding “a lot of things,” including transit. That said, “Our transit issue is a labor issue. It is the drivers. Even if we had the money, we couldn’t do what I think we want to do because we just don’t have the human resources.”