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Complaints Rise as City of Santa Monica Employees Park for Free


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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

May 25, 2018 -- In coming months, the public will start to shell out 40 percent more to park for a day in City-owned lots and structures in downtown Santa Monica -- a hit to the wallet purposely meant to discourage more driving (in favor of alternative transit) on gridlocked streets.

But one of the single largest sources of motorists on city streets will not be required to share the public’s pocket-book pain: Employees of the City’s own government, about 2,200 full-time workers.

As a union negotiated benefit, City employees receive free parking, even as complaints rise from residents about the difficulty of finding a spot anywhere downtown.

Free parking for City employees “means on any given day, a significant portion of Santa Monica’s limited parking pool can be unavailable to residents, visitors, and businesses,” a former City employee -- and member of an ad hoc citizen’s committee on City compensation -- wrote in a May 8 editorial posted on a local blog.

“The ordinance should be modified to explicitly require that city leadership (executives, directors, and even city council) pay standard public rates for parking,” Homa Mojtabai said in her piece for StreetsblogLA.

“This change would ensure that policy makers behave in ways that are consistent with the city’s values and have ‘skin in the game’ with the policies they develop and propose.

"It would also demonstrate leadership to employees -- after all, if your boss and your boss’s boss drive to work alone in a car, why shouldn’t you?” she wrote.

The City has been called out before for granting free employee parking.

More than two years ago, the local watchdog group Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City revealed that City employees were increasingly driving solo to and from work ("Santa Monica Considers Charging City Employees for Parking to Help Meet Anti-Congestion Goals," February 10, 2016).

But more employees are now using transportation other than their own cars after the City instituted a program that uses an "in-lieu cash-out incentive,” said Constance Farrell, a City spokesperson.

“In just the first month of the program the percentage of employees using at least one green commute per week increased 29 percent," Farrell said.

“On average, 60 percent of city staff reported driving to work and 40 percent of city staff reported fully or partially green commuting over a five day period in 2018,” Farrell said.

As of February, 432 employees cashed in on a program paying them to take alternative transportation sometimes to work, out of 1,069 workers who were offered the cash incentive, she said.

That represented about 40 percent, up from 342 employees who cashed in with one or more ”green commutes” a week in December of 2017, out the total of 1,088 workers offered the incentive, she said, or about 31 percent.

In all, in February the City tallied 3,155 green commutes by employees, compared to 2,064 in December of 2017, Farrell said -- or a 53 percent increase.

She said the cash out values varied, based on a such criteria as days/hours worked and “commute mode,” but that for the month of April, the cash-outs ranged from $30 to $150.

Starting July 1, the maximum cash out value will be $100 per month, she said.

In her editorial, Mojtabai, who worked for the City for five years and received free parking, was little impressed with the buy outs offered to employees who give up parking spots.

She said “paying someone to not park is not the same as charging for parking in a city that lauds itself as sustainable. It’s easier to spend public funds to reward what should be expected behavior than it is to simply do the work.”

“Free parking is part of an outdated, indefensible transit model,” Mojtabai said.

“By preaching one thing to the community (parking rate increases and eliminated parking minimums) and practicing another (free council and city employee parking) Mayor Winterer and every councilmember who votes to adopt this ordinance is contributing to a perception that government is not to be trusted.

“If sustainability and transparency are values the city claims to embody, it is important that city leaders -- especially those who are well compensated -- be held accountable to the parking policies imposed on the public,” she said.

Farrell said “average vehicle ridership,” a way to gauge the total number of employees commuting solo in their cars, was still missing the City’s target but inching in the right direction.

“We still have a long way to go and that’s why the incentive program was rolled out in 2018,” she said.


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