14 Comments

No such thing as free parking


I never expected to be writing so much about parking in this space or on Twitter. But once again, it’s parking that has my attention thanks to a series of articles and editorials in the Waterloo Region Record last week.

What’s been getting most of the attention has been that taxpayers is that Revenue Canada determined that free parking for municipal employees in our downtown cores was a taxable benefit and that while our local municipalities fought the decision, they built up a $1.4 million tab that was owed by staff receiving this benefit. Those decisions are unfortunate and while taxpayers never should have found themselves in this situation, it’s not what has caught my attention.

What concerns me is that only one municipality has acted to end free parking for staff. The City of Kitchener gets it. Rather than providing parking for its staff working downtown, it has moved to begin charging for it thus eliminating the taxable benefit.

The City of Kitchener move makes perfect sense on several levels:

  • The vast majority of staff do not need a parking spot to do their jobs. Their cars sit in a parking space all day while they work at their desks.
  • Providing parking to staff for free (even as a taxable benefit) is a luxury when parking is at a premium. The city can not justify giving away so many spaces when making so much noise about the lack of parking downtown. On this issue, they are walking the talk and deserve to be congratulated.

So why is the Region of Waterloo so reluctant to take the same action? They say it has to do with having employees who work in areas where parking is free and others where paying for parking is common. They see it as an equity issue that also has implications for moving staff from one location to another.

The thing is as John MacDonald reminds me, there is no such thing as free parking. Somebody is paying to create it and provide it. At best it’s subsidized. So the question is who pays?

The Region knows that parking has a cost as they are contributing towards a new parking garage to be built as part of the Kitchener Public Library project. How many of those spots are really needed?

I like the idea of adding these parking spaces to the mix and support this new garage but at some point, the Region needs to stop subsidizing people to drive to work in downtown Kitchener. The same reasoning that applies to the City of Kitchener applies here. The Region too has a responsibility for contributing to the economic health of its largest city by reducing its demands upon a limited resource.

But the trump card is that the Region runs Grand River Transit and needs to demonstrate leadership encouraging its staff to use public transit to get to and from work. I hope they are already acting to do so but as long as staff believe they are parking for free, where’s the incentive to change their behaviour.

If the Region fails to charge staff to park in downtown Kitchener, they risk more than being called hypocritical. They risk the success of the Light Rapid Transit (LRT) initiative. How can the Region in good faith ask its citizens to make such a significant investment in public transit when they are not walking the talk? They can’t.

I am a strong supporter of the Light Rapid Transit and believe it is a must to transform and intensify our urban cores. Let’s avoid staff parking from being an election issue or being used as a weapon against the LRT. It’s time for Ken Seiling and friends to act. There’s no such thing as free parking, it’s time to make it official.

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14 comments on “No such thing as free parking

  1. The one thing that’s been missing from this discussion is that getting rid of the free parking without providing pay to compensate is effectively decreasing salary. I can see that there might be union issues with that, though a whole category of chest-thumping Taxpayers would be happy.

    What I would like to see is the politicians getting these issues out in the open: just what are the barriers to asking staff to pay market (or maintenance) rates, and how can we address them?

    I want the municipalities to set exemplary travel-demand management (TDM) policy, and to make it possible for private employers to follow suit.

    • Good points Michael.

      Personally, I think most if not all regional employees can afford to pay market rates–nothing less helps the bigger picture. If costs are a concern, I’d hope that they’d look at alternatives to driving their own car by themselves to work. I expect they’d find cost savings. But it’s also certainly within their rights to take paying for parking into account when dealing with compensation (more than just salary).

      Having an open debate as you suggest would be helpful to the process especially for taxpayers to understand. But the end result must be the elimination of free parking for regional staff working in downtown Kitchener because its just a perception and never really existed.

      • I should point out that I’ve written elsewhere about the costs of free parking.

        “Personally, I think most if not all regional employees can afford to pay market rates–nothing less helps the bigger picture.”

        Can they afford to take home $1000 less in salary every year too? That’s the problem: parking really does cost money, and often has a market value. Removing the incentives for driving does not require effectively reducing wages — but those two things have been conflated here. I’ll admit that they are difficult to entirely disentangle, as different buildings have different costs and values of parking — but then again, in the current system downtown workers benefit from a relatively greater subsidy.

        I suspect that most of those writing letters to the editor on this issue don’t think twice about their “free” parking spot at work.

      • Thanks for including a link to your own perspectives on the costs associated with “free” parking. I know you have given parking and transit a lot of thought and thank you for contributing to the discussion here.

        I remain confident that Region of Waterloo employees can afford to pay for parking if they choose to use it because they are well paid (and deservedly so!).

        I’d like to clarify what I meant by market rate. What I suggest is that the Region charge what the City of Kitchener is charging which is below market rate and follow the same strategy to move its pricing to full market rate over time.

  2. As one of the ‘greedy’ Municipal employees who gets ‘free’ parking (for which I pay income tax every year), I’d like to know how many people in the Private sector also receive this evil and uncalled for ‘benefit’. In 13 years of working at six different companies (only one of which has been public) I have never, ever worked somewhere where parking was not provided.

    Where is the outcry about the injustice of this?

    People whine and moan about having to pay for Municipal workers parking spots, well here’s a newsflash for you, people; if you buy products or services from any private company that provides it’s employees parking (which I would estimate is well over 90% of them) you are paying for their parking, too.

    Will the good Mr. Jeff Outhit be launching another series of articles in the KW record against the injustice of every Bell telephone, Futureshop, Manulife or TD Bank customer footing the bill for ‘greedy’ employee parking benefits? Will the Record take it’s holy crusade against exploitative waste to the doorsteps of Toyota, National Grocer, Schneiders, Pillars or Research in Motion?

    While we may work for a Public employer, my coworkers and I remain private citizens with the same rights and freedoms as everyone else, which includes making a decision as to how we choose to go to work each day. To hold us up to a higher standard simply because our salary is funded through tax dollars is absurd and totally unfair. My parking ‘benefits’ are a key component of my compensation package and I’ll tell you right now, that if they are taken away I will absolutely demand a comesurate increase in pay to match them as I would (and as would any of you) if I were to lose any other paid benefit I receive.

    The biblical saying “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, well, perhaps those of you who feel so strongly about this issue should be turning in your car keys and parking passes before you ask us to do the same.

    • Thank you Greg for providing your perspective as a staff member in the public sector. You make some good points.

      Kitchener is growing and with growth comes change. In larger cities, paid parking in the core is the norm and this is what is occurring in Kitchener. If the employee is not paying it directly, it is considered a taxable benefit–and the employee pays the tax on it. Either way you will be paying for something that has not hit your wallet before.

      You’re correct that many private sector employees receive “free” parking. I’m confident that if they park in the core, their parking is also considered a taxable benefit. Private sector employers also have a different context for making their decisions on parking. Change can be expected there too. My family and friends who work in downtown Toronto pay for parking whether they work for private or public employers.

      But your employer is expected to make policy decisions that are in the best interests of the citizens that it serves. They are also expected to provide leadership on critical issues such as public transit and parking. We rightly hold them to a higher standard and expect them to walk the talk.

      You are well within your rights to look for compensation for being required to pay for parking–but don’t look for sympathy from the public since the majority will believe you are already well compensated.

  3. You’re entitled to your opinions but I don’t work or live in ‘Downtown Toronto’ so I’m really not interested in how they do things there nor do I feel that’s a fair comparison.

    As for ‘walking the walk’, my coworkers and I are not involved with setting policy, Council is. If you have an issue with the policy Council is putting forth you are free to take it up with them, and not take it out on us. I have no more control or involvement in the decisions they make than the Police do in the laws they enforce, any suggestion to the contrary is off-mark at best and irresponsible at worst. If you want to make your point that Council should ‘walk the walk’ (and that doesn’t seem unreasonable to me) then by all means, please feel free to demand that THEY give up their parking privileges.

    In regards to parking being a taxable benefit nobody in the Region is complaining about having to pay income tax on their parking spot, quite the opposite. We are saying that the vast majority of downtown workers receive parking as a ‘benefit’ and pay tax on it accordingly (I have many friends who work in this area and all receive the same benefit). What we find to be unfair is the vilification of Municipal employees for no other reason than being Municipal employees.

    And as for your last point, none of us need, want or have any interest in your ‘sympathy’, what we do want is the same respect and freedoms accorded to any other private citizen who works in this community. The compensation that I receive from my employer is very much in line with virtually every other employer out there who wishes to retain their workforce. If you have any doubts about this feel free to navigate to the Municipality’s website where you can make a request to obtain records on the salaries and compensation packages of all our employees which I believe you will find are quite in line with industry standards for both Public and Private employers.

    • Please do not misunderstand my comments. They are directed at the policy makers not the staff.

      It is Council that I am looking to “walk the talk” and that means implementing a policy that is good public policy and reflects the realities of Kitchener today and into the future. There is a shortage of parking in downtown Kitchener and no level of government can afford to indefinitely provide a spot to every employee who wants one.

      If private sector employers can afford that benefit, they can do so but I’ll be surprised if you don’t see a change in that coming too if they are in the downtown core. For many of the same reasons, I recommend that private sector employees are also charged for parking in Kitchener’s core. Already we have places like Desire2Learn and the Breithaupt Block offering or planning to offer incentives for transportation other than traditional automobiles. But whether this becomes the norm or not, municipalities are to be held to a different standard because they are the ones that make decisions on parking and public transportation and their decisions regarding their own staff’s parking must match their broader policy decisions.

      I am sure that salaries are at an appropriate level that ensures we have and retain the best staff in our municipal governments. That is as it should be. But please be assured that many other employers do not have the same policy or are unable to afford it.

  4. Well. Where to begin? James, you say there is a parking shortage in downtown Kitchener? Seriously? It’s all parking – yeah? there’s even parking on the sidewalks!

    I can name a hundred things I’d rather see my tax dollars used than to subsidize someone’s parking. It’s a bloody outrage, I say. Civil servants and political staff alike ought to be riding the bus, walking or cycling. This driving and parking fixation has got to stop, folks. Lots of important issues to debate. Lots of important work to be done.

    ZS

    {edited version}

    • I thank Greg for taking the time to share his comments. His perspective is one that I am sure is shared by many of his colleagues working for the City of Kitchener and the Region of Waterloo.

      I realize that on the one hand talk of a parking shortage in a sea of parking lots is counter intuitive. But I have come to understand that the problem is that surface parking lots are substantially cheaper to build than parking structures and that current rates charged for parking does not make financial sense to building garages. If we want to eliminate the sea of parking and use the land for more productive purposes, we need to start charging for parking–and then someday we’ll start seeing the surface lots disappear to be replaced with buildings that include parking structures. Manulife, for example, would not squander a full city block in the core for parking if they could receive a better return on the property by developing it.

  5. I think, its not just Kitchener that’s changing, its the world too. Its coming to a bit of a head in KW though because it’s – apparently one of the most car dependant cities in Ontario/Canada, I heard? Changing that is going to be hard.
    Whatever about workers compensation, individuals need to think about the physical implications of demanding the right to drive everywhere all the time & it doesn’t help if their parking is “free”. This is something that everyone ultimately has to do.

    • I agree Lisa. There was a time when I lived happily in Ottawa without a car but when I came back to Kitchener–even though it was only supposed to be for six months, I couldn’t imagine living here without a car so I bought one. It’s time that we started thinking and acting differently even if the transition is not always comfortable.

  6. This is the last I will say on the subject but something you may want to consider, is the extreme challenge Public sector employers have in retaining talented staff when they cannot match the compensation packages being offered by the private sector. I am satisifed with my job, I enjoy working where I do and serving the people in this community, but I have no intention of watching my compensation package be chipped away to satisfy a few chronic-complainers who think Civil Servants should be Civil Slaves.

    The reality of the situation as it is now, is that large private sector employers like RIM, Google, Manulife, Sunlife and a host others, none of whom deny their staff free parking, are making increasingly enticing offers to Public sector staff who are sick and tired of being singled out, targetted and subjected to arbitrary rules that affect no one else. While I am quite certain the response that will appear on this forum in few short hours will sound something like “Then leave”, rest assured, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

    I, like many people, own and maintain a personal vehicle for the freedom and convenience it provides me. I will not continue to work at an employer that requires me to pay for parking while my vehicle remains at home unused in the driveway. To those of you who have lived and worked without a car, congratulations, it’s a wonderful thing that you’ve been able to do so and enjoy it, however this remains a free country where folks are able to make their own choices and I will not be forced onto a bus simply because it makes good copy in the newspaper.

    For those of you who “don’t like paying taxes for peoples parking”, guess what? I don’t like paying bills for your parking, bonuses, stock options and incentives either. I don’t like that every time I buy a cell phone, eat at a restaurant or purchase a month of cable TV I’m paying for the parking of the staff who work there, but that’s how the world works. The argument I’m sure you’re mulling over in your minds right now is “But we have a choice about those things”, consider this: The fact is that if you pay for essentials such as electricity, natural gas, telephone service, internet service, food, water or insurance (and congratulations if you’ve somehow found a way not to) you are paying for the parking of each and every employee of the companies who’s products and services you just consumed.

    When every one of you has given up your parking space, when every single person has boycotted each industry that provides it’s employees a spot for their vehicles, that’s when you can come tell me to turn in my keys. To everyone out there in internet-land howling “Practice what you preach” my sincere suggestion is that you take your own advice before you ask me to do the same.

    • Thanks again for your contributions to this discussion Greg! You demonstrate why this issue is not as simple as it may appear by reflecting how it affects the people most directly involved. At the same time, I reach the same conclusion for the same reasons.

      Retention of staff and compensation will need to be addressed as a part of the larger picture but they should not prevent Regional Council from making this change.

      I’d also suggest that while some municipal staff may be attracted to the private sector, there are others currently working for the private sector or in the non-profit/charitable/arts sectors who find the compensation and security of municipal positions attractive. All employers and sectors struggle with these issues.

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