By Tom Trauring
Our county council recently voted to spend up to $850,000 of taxpayers’ dollars because there is a perceived need for 78 additional parking spaces for full-time county employees who work in the downtown area.
That expenditure will buy 120 parking spaces and an 18,000-square-foot building located one block south of the courthouse. That property currently generates approximately $25,000 a year in property taxes, which will be forfeited if the county takes title to the property.
Over the next three years, the basic additional costs for each of the 78 additional parking spaces (not including additional expenses to be incurred by the county because of its ownership of the property) will be $3,952.99 per year.
That’s right, over the next three years, the taxpayers will incur $3,952.99 per year for each of the additional 78 parking spaces that are supposedly needed for county employees to park free near the courthouse.
County Commissioner Paul Wyman, a proponent of the purchase, argues the acquisition will also allow the Howard County prosecutor to occupy needed additional space in the building on the parking lot. This supposedly makes the purchase more reasonable. Yet there has been no compelling case made to the public for expanding current space used by the prosecutor’s office.
Currently, the prosecutor’s office is located in the courthouse, where, by the way, visitors must first go through a metal detector and courthouse security. We don’t know if additional security will be needed should the prosecutor move to another building.
The prosecutor and most of his deputies are part-time public employees who have private offices where they also attend to many of their public responsibilities. In fact, I believe many of them are provided secretarial allowances, which are used to supplement the salaries of their private-practice secretaries and paralegals for work done in furtherance of their prosecutorial duties. So why the need for more space?
I fear there is no compelling need for moving the prosecutor’s office outside the courthouse.
All of this also begs the question: Do the taxpayers have a duty to provide free parking for county employees? I think not.
A few years ago, county employees were permitted to park free about the same distance from the courthouse. Many continued to park around the courthouse. In fact, some racked up substantial parking ticket fees, which was the subject of periodic news articles in the local print media.
County Commissioner Tyler Moore, who is a friend, recently was quoted as saying that fewer than 10 county employees currently park around the courthouse square. This implies there is no justifiable need for the county to acquire land so that employees can park free in the downtown area. At least it confirms there is no need to spend $850,000 to buy 120 parking spaces and a new building.
Some, including Mayor Goodnight, who has done much to improve the downtown area, believe the use of parking spaces by county employees adversely impacts economic development in the downtown area. After all, what retail business wants to locate where parking is a problem?
All I can say is that I drive to the courthouse several times each week, and I have never had a problem finding a parking place at any time between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. And since the courthouse closes at 4 p.m., parking after that is always available.
Our local government is, in my opinion, systematically ignoring long-term costs to provide a fast benefit when there really is no problem. We have heard elected county officials complain that the city’s annexations, the downturn in the economy, and the exit of many high-paying local jobs will mean the county will have to do more with less money. This is in direct conflict with the county council’s vote to purchase additional property for parking spaces and new offices for the prosecutor.
We are not short of serious future revenue problems at every level of government. Acts which ignore sensible, cost-conscious and effective government solutions are never the result of thoughtful and smart deliberations. The taxpayers of Howard County deserve better stewardship.
*Tom Trauring is a Kokomo attorney.