Temporary sheaths should be covering all the parking meters in downtown Davenport by early next week, but Davenport aldermen caution that free parking isn't necessarily a permanent solution.

The city will embark on a pilot parking project and study that aldermen hope will provide data allowing them to figure out the best way to manage on-street parking in the central city. Aldermen voted unanimously in favor of operating the program through June 30 at last night's City Council meeting.

The plan calls for the bagging of all downtown meters, allowing two kinds of free parking:

- Downtown core: Two-hour free parking will be enforced by existing parking officers who will record license plate information and ticket those who stay in a spot more than two hours. These bags will be green. The area is bounded by Scott Street on the west, Iowa Street on the east, 5th Street on the north and River Drive on the south.

- Rest of downtown: Free parking will be allowed for 24 hours. Those who exceed the 24-hour limit will be ticketed. These bags will be brown.

Parking staff will use hand-held computers to monitor spots, and ticket fines will remain at $8 per violation.

Supporters of the program - and either a reduction in price or elimination of most downtown meters - say the effort will bring more people to downtown and boost retail, restaurant and office business.

There is concern about the financial ramifications, however.

The city is still paying down more than $13 million in debt on parking ramp construction and has been funding much of it through revenue from meters and fines. Eliminating the meter revenue will exacerbate what is already a $200,000 parking budget deficit.

Finance Director Alan Guard told aldermen there is sufficient fund balance in the parking account - at $1.7 million - to cover the cost of the pilot program. The data generated from the pilot program will help the city come up with a new strategy for both economic development and debt repayment, supporters said.

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Alderman Mike Matson, 8th Ward, is skeptical, however. He doesn't understand why the meter removal is necessary when the goal is to get more people into the ramps, which already are not full.

Alderman Bill Edmond, 2nd Ward, said he will support removing meters or significantly reducing the hourly rate only if the pilot program clearly demonstrates an increase in visitors and shoppers to downtown. City staff said they have the baseline data to measure that.

Several downtown merchants spoke in favor of the program, and a long-term commitment to making on-street parking free or at the very least, more affordable.

"I've been down here 55 years, and every time the (parking rate) goes up, business goes downhill," said Tom Magers, owner of Major Art & Hobby on 2nd Street. "It was wrong of the city to use meters to generate revenue."

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