2015-07-24 / Community

Port plagued by parking problems

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — The automated parking gate at the municipal parking lot on Spring Street in Kennebunkport has been up and running only since June 3, but already some selectmen are wondering if they were sold a bill of goods.

“Why don’t we go back to the old way, and throw the thing out,” asked Selectmen Stuart Barwise, at the most recent board meeting.

At that session, selectmen considered adding an evening attendant to the parking lot, due to the many issues with the new gate, even though the automated system was supposed to do away with the need for people to man the parking lot.

“We’re retro-engineering a process,” Barwise said. “We’re engineering back to a process we had back before we spent a fortune on a new system. I struggle with continuing to throw money to make something work the way it did years before.”

“But the new system isn’t working the way it should,” Chairman Sheila Matthews-Bull said.

“Well, fix that,” Barwise shot back.

But according to Matthews-Bull, who championed the additional labor, issues need to be smoothed over until a permanent fix can be found.

“The businesses in the Dock Square area are the ones getting the complaints,” she said. “People go into their businesses and say, ‘You don’t want us down here anymore, you’re not being friendly,’ and, ‘We’re not going to come back.’

“When you’re a business owner, you take that to heart,” she said.

According to Town Manager Laurie Smith, the problem has been a combination of user error and technical issues — the new machine, which does not accept cash, also does not seem able to read international credit cards.

“People can’t seem to put their credit cards in the system,” Smith said.

“So, when they say they’re not coming back, say we have an IQ test,” Barwise replied.

According to Smith, a recent survey showed that, when the lot is open, from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. on Sunday, cars pass through the gate at “about one per minute.”

“When somebody gets held up, it holds up other people, and that’s the problem,” Smith said. “We are having to let 10 or 12 people go through in order to reset the system.”

To help combat the problem, the town has rehired two attendants who worked the lot last year, and now take turns manning the gate. But they only work until 5 p.m. and some of the more serious issues have happened later in the evening.

At 7:35 p.m. on July 3, for example, Arthur Grant, 44, of Saco, was charged with criminal mischief following an investigation into damage done the previous day to the parking gate.

According to Kurt Moses, deputy chief of the Kennebunkport Police Department, Grant was a passenger in a vehicle that pulled up to the parking gate and, based on security camera footage, jumped out and ripped off the automated arm on the parking gate. When contacted as a result of the investigation, Grant went to the Kennebunkport Police Station to receive his summons, Moses said.

But Grant is hardly the first person alleged to have committed this particular crime.

“We’ve had several of these incidents, usually late at night,” Moses said, pegging the average cost to fix the parking gate arm at “between $500 and $600.”

“Most of the more serious incidents have been at 10 p.m. or after,” Smith said. “The people we’ve had down there during the day have been invaluable. When these people are there I think they are beneficial in helping people so we don’t get backups, because that’s when people get angry. I hate to think what it would have been like if they weren’t there.”

That success, said Matthews-Bull, was why she wanted to increase staffing.

“This being the first season, I want to run smoothly,” she said. “We’re coming up with problems we didn’t think we’d have. If we don’t allow it to run smoothly, then it won’t work at all.”

But Barwise held his ground.

“Typically, the answer to anything not working properly is not more humans, it’s fewer,” he said. “Why have them, when we invested so much money into the system?”

But Smith said the only other alternative, if the issue with international credit cards can’t be straightened out — and that could be difficult, given the variety of cards in use, she said — is to convert to a system that accepts cash. But that, she said, would mean a much larger outlay that selectmen have made already.

“It’s the difference between $16,000 and $40,000,” she said. “I don’t see that we want to make that kind of investment at this point in time.”

“I give up,” Barwise said, throwing his hands in the air as a gesture of mock defeat. “I’d rather fix the system then apply a patch that’s not going to fix the problem, which will exist again next year. Then, forever and ever, we wind up with the patch as a permanent solution.”

Barwise also suggested there may be more smoke than fire in this particular crisis. Although the $3 per hour parking fee did not increase with the new system, Barwise said complaints may be outpacing actual incidents.

“The businesses downtown hated this from Day One and I’m wary that we base our decision on anecdotal feedback from people who didn’t want it to begin with,” he said.

“Well, we don’t have to vote on this tonight,” Matthews-Bull said. “We just thought we’d bring it up.”

Ultimately, the board decided to continue collecting data on use of the parking lot and documented problems before making a decision. The lot will close following Labor Day. There are no plans to charge for parking during the Prelude 2015 Christmas celebration.

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