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Mainstrasse Parking Discussed, City Finances Questioned at Covington Meeting

Issues from the 2016 campaign for the Covington mayor's seat returned to City Hall for the new city commission's second official meeting.

On Monday night, Mayor Joe Meyer sat in his center seat at the dais and peppered city staff with questions about what the plan is to accommodate parking in Mainstrasse Village as two of the most significant development's in the entertainment district's history are set to begin.

"It's the confusion as much as anything and the constant changes and the effectiveness of the kiosks that force so many people to quit going to Mainstrasse and patronizing our businesses," Meyer said at the new commission's first caucus meeting. It was determined at the commission's first legislative meeting last week that items to be placed on legislative agendas must first be discussed and fleshed out at caucus meetings. Parking in Mainstrasse was listed as a "discussion item".

Discussion and debate about the parking plan in the Village was key component of Meyer's many criticisms of former Mayor Sherry Carran and the city administration led by City Manager Larry Klein. A pay-to-park plan rolled out in 2016 but some businesses and residents complained about the roll-out, citing difficult-to-use kiosks and irregular and inconsistent enforcement periods and rates. Meyer said the plan is forcing businesses to make tough choices. "So many businesses have closed already. Others are losing money. Others are planning on laying off staff," the mayor said. "And we're asking them to bear this burden, for what?"

City Hall hosted multiple public meetings to discuss the parking arrangement last year, but on the horizon now is a large mixed-use development that will occupy the parking lot on Fifth Street where the 501 Main building looms. That building will be razed and the parking lot will be replaced by commercial spaces, apartment units, and a parking garage.

But until that parking garage is built and opened, the current spaces will be gone.

Development manager Donald Warner is working with other city staff to formulate an interim parking plan. There will be spaces available on Philadelphia Street that are currently designated as residential but will be made public, he said. A sliver of the parking lot not owned by the city but used to host cars that opt for valet service is not filled to capacity so Warner said that those spots will be made available. There is also a small parking lot on Pershing Street that will help, he said. The city is also working with the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky to possibly offer a shuttle service from the hotels near the Ohio River where there is more ample parking.

Meyer suggested that the pay-to-park plan in Mainstrasse be scrapped altogether and said that the developers of the 501 Main site agree. "They believe the parking in Mainstrasse has contributed to a very deteriorating situation for the businesses that are there and they felt these additional changes and the confusion associated with them would only hurt existing Mainstrasse businesses and they felt the only way this issue could be addressed is to restore parking to where it was and allow parking throughout Mainstrasse without the limitations that are there," Meyer said.

At a city commission meeting in December, the developers - Indianapolis-based Flahery & Collins - sought to finalize part of the development agreement. A parking remediation plan was expected to be part of the agreement but was not to the satisfaction of some members of the commission. "We have been waiting for four months for a transition parking plan and in that December 20 meeting, the conversation was real clear," Meyer said. "We will have a plan within four weeks, by the time the bonds are ready to be signed.

"That time is here. What is our transition parking plan for the development of 501 Main in the Mainstrasse Village?"

City Manager Klein said that he had requested an executive session with the mayor and commissioners to discuss "sensitive and confidential information" related to the sale of the sliver of parking lot that is not currently owned by the city. Then, the city staff would be able to present the alternative plan.

Meyer said there was no need for the executive session in relation to a transition parking plan. "There may be good reasons to buy that property but they are reasons that need to be explained long before we go into executive session to discuss a transition plan," the mayor said. "This parking plan is ripe and we need it and the Mainstrasse businesses need relief. They need relief from the disaster that they have experienced."
 
While some business owners have said that their sales have suffered since a pay-to-park plan was implemented, Mainstrasse Village has seen a positive transformation in recent years, with hip new bars and restaurants replacing vacant or under-utilized buildings, and the neighborhood has become a destination for lovers of high-end food and drink. The draw of the neighborhood has attracted two large developments - 501 Main and the lofts project that will soon get underway where John R. Green Company previously operated. Both projects will significantly disrupt parking in the densely populated area.
 
Meyer said he hopes to see a plan by next week's city commission meeting.
 
"It is really important to listen to the developer," Meyer said. "I don't want to be in the position to slow down a development because we don't have a parking plan. I'm not going to screw the Mainstrasse people and I'm not going to screw the developer."
 
City finances questioned
 
Meyer also requested that the city undergo an independent review of its finances, even though that happens every year, anyway. The move is counter to the facts presented throughout 2016 in which Mayor Carran and city staff touted a continuously improving financial condition that included the paying off of the city's 40-year old tax anticipation note.
 
Meyer said he wanted a "comprehensive review to validate the overall financial condition of the city." That would include a review of borrowed money, debt obligations, future debt service needs, and the sustainability of the debt service he said. "If we're in great shape, wonderful. If we have questions, we'll know what they are."
 
City Commissioner Timothy Downing supports the idea. He was elected to his first term in November. "I'd like to take a deeper dive into the city finances," he said. That would require something deeper than the annual audit performed by an outside agency each year, he said.

City Commissioner Jordan Huizenga, who is now in his second term, questioned what the newcomers expected to find. "A lot of stuff you've listed I think is good and important information that we should indeed have," Huizenga said. "I feel that those are things that don't require a new audit. A lot of that stuff seems like information that we can get in the general operations of the city." Huizenga also questioned whether the city is appropriately staffed to assist with such a review, since finance and operations director Lisa Desmarais departed last month.

The independent audit was just concluded four months ago.

"A rule of thumb," Meyer said, "when a new police chief is hired, normally the first thing he does is audit the property room, just to make sure things are where they are. When a university president is brought on board, usually the first thing we do is an independent financial review. In this case, we have a new commission and we have just gone through a rather heated election process and in the course of that election process there were a number of financial reports that showed dramatic changes over the course of time from June 30 to August 15 to October 15. So it raised legitimate and fair questions about the nature of the reporting."

"We're starting off new and fresh," Meyer continued, "and I think we need an independent review of our overall financial condition so that we are truly comfortable when we go through the budgeting process. This is a prudent and responsible thing to do."
 
The request will be placed on the agenda at next week's meeting.
 
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher
Photo: Covington Mayor Joe Meyer addresses city staff on Monday night (RCN)