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Maritime Aquarium boss denies ‘free parking for life’ accusation

NORWALK, Conn. – Accusations of free parking for life for people who volunteer at the Norwalk Maritime Aquarium are groundless, according to Aquarium Executive Director Jennifer Herring.

The accusation took root after a Parking Authority meeting last week where the Aquarium asked the NPA to not charge the tourist attraction for employee parking. Former Parking Authority Chairman Bryan Meek wrote in a comment on NancyOnNorwalk, “Technically, you could volunteer for a week or even a few days and get a free permanent parking pass for life.”

Herring said Wednesday Meek was wrong.

“The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk and the Norwalk Parking Authority work together diligently to maintain tight and constant control over use of The Maritime Garage by Aquarium volunteers,” she said. “Suggestions of a ‘free permanent parking pass for life’ or a lack of coordination between The Maritime Aquarium and the NPA are incorrect.

“In order to exit the garage, volunteers must validate their parking ticket with the attendant in the garage office after each day of Aquarium service,” she said. “They must be on an approved list that is continually updated by the Aquarium’s human resources department and provided to the Norwalk Parking Authority staff. Furthermore, volunteers must present their Aquarium-issued identification badge and be in uniform.”

Meek said that, when he was on the NPA, the agency shut down the parking pass distribution.

“Eventually passes were shut off,” he said, “but the NPA had to have cooperation of the Aquarium to get this done. The NPA can’t be expected to know who is and who isn’t working and needs some control over the situation.”

As NancyOnNorwalk reported Monday, the proposed new parking agreement had been negotiated over the past two years with the mayor’s office and the executive branch of the city as part of the larger lease revision that includes dropping the lease payment to the city to $1 in exchange for the aquarium taking over the maintenance of the 25-year-old building. The lease was approved in October by the Common Council but needs to be approved again, a technical correction to allow Mayor Harry Rilling sign it instead of former Mayor Richard Moccia.

The NPA wants the Aquarium to pay for spaces used by its employees and volunteers, an expense Herring, who is leaving her job in 2015, said the Aquarium cannot afford.

“We feel as though there needs to be some sort of ownership on a financial level from the Maritime Aquarium to the garage because the drastic use of it. I mean, it’s almost half,” Parking Authority Vice Chairman William Michael Harden said. “The number is not a big number, it’s almost like a token that there is a side to the deal because we are a business. We have a tremendous amount of expenses that we are taking responsibility for as well in this economy and in this time. I know there is a balance, but I am just trying to decide – if you had a conversation with these volunteers? Where does that come from?”

But Herring urged the Parking Authority to approve the parking agreement that has been drafted because, she said, the aquarium would lose its volunteers if they were asked to pay for parking.

“Maritime Aquarium volunteers are vital to the Aquarium’s operations, serving as the ‘front-line’ educators/exhibit interpreters for the 450,000 visitors who enjoy the Norwalk family attraction annually,” Herring told NoN in her Wednesday email. “Aquarium volunteers work 25,000 hours a year.”

“There are also part-time employees putting in 35,265 hours a year in a payroll that is about $696,000, she said last week. “They cannot afford to pay for parking either and they would not work for us if they had to pay for parking.”

But, Meek said in his comment, “At one point there were nearly 500 parking passes outstanding at a cost to the NPA of $180,000 a year. … There is no incentive to run things properly and this has to stop.”

Comments

18 responses to “Maritime Aquarium boss denies ‘free parking for life’ accusation”

  1. EveT

    Does the current NPA leadership concur with Mr. Meek’s assertions? Or is he describing a situation that either no longer exists or that never existed?

  2. Bryan Meek

    Since no one tried to reach me for comment and there seems to be some confusion here, please allow me to specifically lay out what happened and why.
    .
    Here are the minutes that IT has posted to the city’s website for the Parking Authority. http://norwalkct.org/Archive.aspx?AMID=123
    .
    I first refer you to the meeting on July 27th, 2011, page 3 under old business there were a reported 566 active access cards. http://norwalkct.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/4103
    .
    Next in the meeting on September 14th, 2011, page 2 under monthly operations, where they worked with the Maritime to remove half of the cards. http://norwalkct.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/4265
    .
    So I will stand by my statements that there are currently no controls in place, other than a gentleman’s agreement not to abuse the situation.
    .
    I will also stand by my statement that if the NPA so decided to charge the aquarium a tiny, lower than market value sum for parking that it would be the aquarium’s choice whether or not to pay for that. That is not up to me. That is up to the current NPA. What I strongly recommend since they are both in lease negotiations, is that some controls be put in place to make sure the city’s assets are not being abused again. Is that really too much to ask?
    .
    As a licensed CPA and with almost two decades of working on financial systems, I find it very disturbing that the aquarium is so adverse to having a modicum of control here. In the audit world, this would compel an audit engagement manager to consider examination of other areas. But that’s just my opinion of current audit guidelines proscribed for non profits. Moreover, I think the aquarium is missing an opportunity to take responsibility for itself and run itself as efficiently as possible with its scarce resources. I do wish them well. My family really enjoys going there.

  3. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Whoever is in charge of the Parking Authority now needs to tell former authority members to stop speaking for the authority asap.

    What is really going on here is that the Maritime Garage now has competition from the new SONO Ironworks garage and will soon have additional competition from the Pearl’s garage. The Aquarium is poised to generate 80 to 90% of the Maritime Garage’s business as the Maritime Garage loses business to the new garages that are more conveniently located to Washington Street.

    As the Maritime Garage’s best customer, the Authority should be working with the Aquarium, not trying to make up their lost revenue on the backs of Aquarium volunteers, which is what is going on here. The Aquarium should open a dialog with the Ironworks and Pearl Garages about steering their customers and employees to the new garages and boycotting the Maritime Garage – maybe the Parking Authority will then get that they need to working productively with their best customer instead of against them.

  4. Oldtimer

    But, Meek said in his comment, “At one point there were nearly 500 parking passes outstanding at a cost to the NPA of $180,000 a year. … There is no incentive to run things properly and this has to stop.”
    Where does Mr Meek get his numbers ? It is not hard to understand that he would know the number of passes, but how does he arrive at a figure of $180,000 ? Is he guessing that each person with a pass would spend $350 for parking in the garage if they didn’t have the pass ? How many of those passes are given to parking authority members and/or employees and how many were given to Aquarium volunteers/employees ? There was plenty of free parking for Aquarium volunteers, employees, and customers, (including school buses) when the Aquarium started. Since then, that property has been taken for other development with no apparent regard for the effect on the Aquarium. Ms Herring has a valid issue and the parking authority has big debt to pay. We can only hope a reasonable compromise can be reached. Possibly, the aquarium can, for a reasonable price, get the power to validate parking stubs for their people. Then the debate will shift to what is reasonable. Some think parking should be a public service, others believe it is a business that should pay it’s way.

  5. Bryan Meek

    I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I don’t speak on behalf of the NPA.
    .
    I’m speaking up as a concerned citizen who would like to see city assets taken care of and used efficiently with accountability. We gave the aquarium free parking for 25 years. Now they want another 17 and don’t want to give anything back. That’s not an agreement. That is servitude.
    .
    I also said that NPA did work with the aquarium to resolve this, but that agreement is not in writing. It should be.
    .
    $30 a month for daytime worker parking is the rate for the garage. That’s $1 a day roughly. I had a pass that I used to attend meetings which are held at the garage as do other members as well as the vendor’s staff. In all I’d be surprised if there were more than 30 outstanding for those entities. The rest are for the aquarium. I surrendered my pass at the expiration of my term. Thank you.

  6. Scott

    The parking authority has to support a business, it’s called LAZ. The profit margin needs to be maintained. This was far less of a problem when it was done by the city. Curious since they are so concerned about revenue, is the valet service that puts red covers on meters on Washington st. being charged for running their business out of those public parking spaces? They better be doing more than putting in quarters. Parking was always a city service and should continue that way

  7. Bryan Meek

    Scott, the NPA is accountable to the voters, not the vendors it chooses to maintain and operate the facilities and equipment, nor the aquarium or any other non profit entities who think they are entitled to free use of city assets.
    .
    On a cash basis, the NPA has done well over the last 6 years finishing slightly in the black, but on a GAAP depreciation basis they are barely floating, and about a half million short of the levels of cash reserves recommended for governmental enterprise funds. The debt for the NPA is just under $10 million right now for the various garages and capital improvements. Charging for the few parking spaces the aquarium actually needs isn’t going to close any gaps. It is about proper control. There is also nothing to stop the NPA from promoting the aquarium from its own funds. Something it was already doing to an extent.
    .
    As for the valet service on Washington, it was the local property owners who requested those spaces be reserved for valet service during the construction phase of 99. The NPA receives a fee for those spaces and the valet service is operated by the local property owner. This is just one of dozens of examples where the NPA effectively partners with the business community.
    .
    As for when parking was run by the city directly, we were at the point of having to condemn both Haviland and Yankee Doodle garages from years of neglected maintenance and labor costs were out of control. At the rate they were going if the city were operating parking I would guess the costs would be somewhere north of $6 million a year versus the $4 million they are right now. This is on top of the fact that there are currently no needed physical repairs to any of the garages or structures or lots.
    .
    In large part credit for this goes to former Mayor Alex Knopp for organizing the city this way and to Mayor Moccia for leaving it intact as an autonomous non partisan governing body. Before that, when parking was a small line item on DPWs budget, it was constantly short changed on projects and subject to council whims on putting off necessary repairs and maintenance. It may not be perfect in its current form, but it is in a much better position to make necessary changes in the face of a changing environment.

  8. Non Partisan Voter

    “The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk and the Norwalk Parking Authority work together diligently to maintain tight and constant control over use of The Maritime Garage by Aquarium volunteers,” she said. “Suggestions of a ‘free permanent parking pass for life’ or a lack of coordination between The Maritime Aquarium and the NPA are incorrect.
    “In order to exit the garage, volunteers must validate their parking ticket with the attendant in the garage office after each day of Aquarium service,” she said. “They must be on an approved list that is continually updated by the Aquarium’s human resources department and provided to the Norwalk Parking Authority staff. Furthermore, volunteers must present their Aquarium-issued identification badge and be in uniform.”

    So, @Meek, are you saying that the director of the Aquarium is not telling the truth about how they manage the volunteer’s parking? Why do NPA authority members have free parking passes – they should just have their parking validated when they are actually there for a meeting.

  9. Bryan Meek

    @Voter. I never said the past situation represented is what is currently happening. I only said that an agreement needs to be put in writing so that it doesn’t happen again. The lease is that opportunity to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The commission turns over every 5 years and staff and museum directors aren’t permanent. 5 passes issued to commissioners with definite terms is not a control issue. 500 volunteer passes that the NPA has no idea who is rightfully using them is. Above, I gave you the links to the minutes where this was discussed. I don’t really have anything other to add to these facts.

  10. Scott

    If a private company is willing to take over its because there’s money to be made (they aren’t doing it for free). Why can’t the city break even? Sounds like mis-management

  11. Non Partisan Voter

    “I never said the past situation represented is what is currently happening….500 passes that the NPA has no idea who is rightfully using them is.” @Meek: which is it? You are talking out of both sides of your mouth. 5 free parking passes to commissioners is 5 too many – no other commissions get free perks such as free parking in SONO, why should you? You are stealing from taxpayers – the rest of us just get parking tickets for being a minute over on the meter…

  12. Bryan Meek

    @Partisan Voter. The other commissioners have free parking where they meet to my knowledge. So does the NPA for 11 meetings a year at night. I could show you my scores of parking receipts for my trips to NYC for work but that still probably wouldn’t change your tone or position here. Thanks for your service to the community.

  13. Bryan Meek

    @Scott. It’s called competitive advantage in most b school text books. The vendor that manages operations is a multi-national company with billions in assets under its control and millions of man hours of experience in parking operations. The NPA hires many different vendors for different types of repairs and projects. The city can not compete in this regard. There are many examples of this in our government except in most cases it is taxpayers rather than direct consumers who pick up the bills. There are probably very good reasons that the City doesn’t own its own fleet of school buses I am not aware of, but I can guess that it saves us money from the economies of scale that these vendors can achieve.

  14. Non Partisan Voter

    So you are saying that the Parking Authority members only use their free parking pass for Parking Authority meetings? How do we know that? What process is used to manage that? Is it as thorough as the Aquarium’s process for their volunteers? Why shouldn’t the parking authority members be charged at least a nominal fee similar to what you are asking the Aquarium volunteers to pay? If you want free parking for your meetings, then hold your meetings at City Hall, where they would be more accessible to the public, but the Parking Authority wouldn’t really like that, would they?

  15. Scott

    Mr. Meek you yourself said that parking was only a tiny line item in DPW’s budget. This was the mismanagement that I was referring to. Your comment about school text books I found very demeaning. I read it as you saying that I am uneducated. I am educated. Right here in our Norwalk public schools and our state universities. I did not however major in business or economics. For me ( an educated average tax payer) the numbers never added up. It’s as if these city departments are constantly set up to fail. Couldn’t we have done things like installing the automated kiosks in Webster lot and kept all the profit for the city? And don’t throw labor costs at me. LAZ has to pay employees and insurance too. It just never added up for me.

  16. Non Partisan Voter

    Good news for the Maritime Aquarium: It turns out that the SONO Ironworks garage is largely empty during the day and is busy at night when people come to the restaurants. The Aquarium is open during the day and closed in the evenings, so their parking patterns are perfectly complimentary to the Ironwork’s garage business – the same is expected to be true for the Pearl – a huge incentive for the Aquarium and the private garages to work together. Good luck NPA in balancing your budget without the Aquarium business! The downside for the rest of us is that the NPA will start charging $1000 for each parking ticket they give out in SONO.

  17. Bryan Meek

    No offense meant Scott. Just pointing out that there are some things the city can’t compete with larger vendors on. The city managers have to decide what makes sense and what doesn’t. I’ve seen the real savings in the parking operations and I can imagine there are good reasons we don’t own our own asphalt plant either. The problem the parking operation had under DPW is that it was competing for resources with every other aspect of DPW and often lost out on budgetary allocations. It is much better served as a separate entity so that it can do what it needs to do. I would always entertain options to insource operations if they had economic merit. In fact it isn’t a bad idea some times for entities to outsource to get a clean slate and an efficient operation in place and then to insource again. It’s much harder for governmental entities to do this given labor considerations, but private entities do this all the time.
    .
    @Partisan Voter. The only place free parking exists is Monopoly. Someone still has to maintain and operate those lots. If the NPA does end up charging the Aquarium anything for parking which it never has, it is solely up to the Aquarium whether or not to pass those costs on to their workers or customers. Most can see the logic in having a system in place to manage 200 volunteers coming and going day in and day out versus micromanaging a small handful who use it once a month.

  18. Kevin Di Mauro

    Here’s an idea that works well in Bridgeport. Let the volunteers and other city employees park on the sidewalks in areas around the Aquarium, Stepping Stones, etc. It seems to be catching on well here in “Little Bridgeport”.

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