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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Another Parking Fee Increase On the Way

With an annual $3 million dollar debt service, university administration officials are preparing to roll out an increase in parking fees next semester for the fourth time in four years.

The new garage, the source of the debt, is in the works to either provide a substitute for the upper and lower levels, or a place to redirect traffic while the existing garage structure is repaired.

“We are working on a long-term solution to the issue of parking on the campus and the major capital investment that solution will require. This will involve University community and public input as we move further along the process and formulate options,” Ellen O’Connor, vice chancellor of finance, wrote in a November 30 university-wide memo.

One option O’Connor tentatively set for early 2005 is an increase in the daily parking fee, up from its current amount of $6 to $7. Multi-day rates and reserved parking rates will also be adjusted accordingly, and discount rates will be eliminated for those parking for more than one hour.

Four years ago university and labor union negotiations on the last set of parking fee increases ended at impasse, allowing UMB to institute its last best offer. Now, as the issue comes to a head once again, both administration and union representatives are ready to resurrect their arguments.

The poor state of the garage and the cost of the shuttle bus remain key issues in the administration’s rationale for the increase, as they did in fall 2001 negotiations. Despite agreement on dealing with the infrastructure problem, some say that the burden should not be deferred to those driving to campus.

SEIU Grievance Secretary Tom Goodkind, a research machinist for the College of Science and Mathematics who maintains an office below the Science Building at the heart of the upper level, says that the unions on campus recognized the severity of the parking garage problem long before administrators did.

“The parking fee was supposed to have essentially two uses; one to pay for the shuttle bus, and second to maintain the garage,” said Goodkind. “The maintenance of the garage, as far as we can tell, never occurred. Unions have been raising this issue since ’88…There was a long period of time where the administration was telling us, ‘it’s not that bad’…they were afraid that if word got out how bad it was people would stop coming, it would hurt the reputation.”

“The alarm bells were not rung when they should’ve been rung. The lobbying was not done when it should’ve been done, and instead they simply turned to the students and staff and say ‘You’re going to foot the bill,'” says Goodkind.

Arthur MacEwan, economics professor and president of the Faculty and Staff Union, agrees and, along with Goodkind, is not convinced that the university has exhausted all avenues in its attempt to secure state funding. “This is not appropriately viewed as simply a parking problem,” says MacEwan. “It seems to me that it is the responsibility of the state government to provide the capital infrastructure for the operation of the university. The administration of the university says that they have not been able to see any prospect for being able to get the money form the state and therefore they turn to the only sources they control…namely the students and the people that work here.”

Neal Rosenberg, assistant to the vice chancellor of finance, and other university officials disagree. He says that the university has actively lobbied the state, citing the recent visit by Department of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) officials as an example.

“In the political process, I don’t think your efforts to secure funding for capital projects is going to go very far unless DCAM is aware of your projects and expresses support for [them]. I mean, I think it’s definitely an audience you want to have on your side. I think the president, the chancellor, the vice chancellor, acted pretty quickly to help them understand what we’re working on,” said university spokesperson Ed Hayward.Some faculty and union members remain unconvinced. They argue that a hike in the parking fee will disproportionately effect students and staff. “While our students are, in general, not poverty-stricken people, they are certainly not rich people,” MacEwan said. “This is one more added fee. Of course, a dollar, you could say, isn’t all that much on the parking fee, but first of all it’s a dollar a day, and secondly it adds up over the year. And thirdly, it is one more of a set of fees which have been placed on students over the last few years.”Steven Ackerman, director of biochemistry, agrees. “Our student retention is the worst of all the state campuses and the trustees actually chastised us about this…last spring or over the summer,” Ackerman said, adding that there is an obvious correlation between the rise of fees and the loss of students in good academic standing.

Comparable to Other Universities?

Rosenberg maintains that the new proposed $7 fee is in line with other Boston area institutions. He cites the $8 per day parking fee at Boston University, Northeastern rates ranging from $7 for two to three hours, and Suffolk University’s lack of on-campus parking that might spur students to park in nearby Boston Common Garage and pay $15 for three hours, as examples of congruity.

Ackerman and others feel the comparison with private institutions is not a valid one. “They’re in the middle of the city, we’re out here on Columbia Point, different story,” he says. “We are a commuter campus, they have dorms…many of our students, 87 percent of our students work, one or more jobs. They have to have a car to get to jobs. How many students are living in places as far away as Andover, Beverly, Cape Cod? A fair percentage. I know because they say getting here for my 8:30 class means that they have to leave at 5:30 in the morning. So, how are these people going to take public transportation? Not very easily.”

Ackerman adds, “My argument…was that these other places are charging $40,000 plus for tuition. If you take the ratio of parking to tuition, our ratio is much worse than theirs considering that there are people paying $8,000 after tuition and fees per year, that means that our parking fee is effectively five times higher based on that comparison.”Rosenberg does not see a clear-cut financial difference between students at UMB and private institutions. “I don’t necessarily agree there,” he says. “I think students choose to go to universities for various reasons, not only based on their family’s income…It doesn’t necessarily hold that our students are less well off or their students are better well off than ours. I’m not sure that that argument is valid.”

Unions and faculty also argue that students are already and will be forced to continue to cram their classes into two or three days during the week to avoid the extra cost. Rosenberg, who attended UMB, says that scheduling classes on two or three days during the week is an efficient way for the nontraditional UMB student to help balance academics with jobs and other responsibilities.

Those against the fee also suspect the increase might hinder faculty from coming to campus on days that they can work from home, thus providing less access to students. “I’ve had faculty tell me that now they come in less than they used to when parking fees were lower,” says MacEwan. “If you have to come in, you have to come in, but when you’re trying to make a choice you might not come in that day and that…creates an environment which is from an educational point of view a less good environment for all of us.”

Ackerman adds that public transportation is not always an option for faculty as they often have teaching aids and laptops to bring to campus and as costs of living in the city have risen some are forced to move further from campus. “If the faculty make that decision based on having to pay the parking fee, that’s something for the provost to comment on, not me,” says Rosenberg.

New Parking Options for Employees

This year the university is allowing for monthly renewable pretax employee parking options, Rosenberg said, adding that allowing employees to purchase parking passes without paying taxes should ease the burden, and that including the option of monthly renewal allows one to further decrease their expense by choosing to pay cash or take the train in instances in which they are not on campus as much.Despite the benefits of pretax parking fare, Ackerman and others believe that it will still disproportionately effect the university’s lowest income bracket who often are on campus the most, such as maintenance, clerical, food service, and other contracted employees.

Tom Goodkind agrees, adding that morale among many of these employees is already low after the legislative decision to only partially fund contracts dating from July 2001. “On the one hand to be owed thirty months back pay and on the other to take what for many of us is a pay cut, basically is, it’s very insulting,” he said.

“The high-end administrators are making out like bandits,” says Ackerman. “My salary-base, whatever it is, I’m paying $1152 this year for parking pretax…a classified staff person making $25,000 is probably paying over $1300 because they’re in a lower tax rate. Where an administrator making $150,000 is probably paying more like $900 because they’re in a higher tax bracket. There’s something unfair about that.”

UMass Amherst has parking available on a sliding scale based on salary and student tenure. Goodkind says this option was raised by the unions in 2001, but administrators rejected it. Rosenberg says that the option may be worth looking into.

Rosenberg contends that regardless of whether the parking fee rises, it is in the best interests of students, faculty, and staff to use the reduced parking fee options, multi-pass and or pretax, available to them.

“Depending upon your needs, how often you’re here, you can buy a semester pass, you can buy a sixty park pass and if you’re here two days a week that’ll last you thirty weeks, more than half the year,” says Rosenberg. “We have alternatives to paying the daily rates and we certainly recommend that if a student’s going to be here regularly during the semester that they do buy the semester pass which gives maybe as much as a 75 percent discount off the daily rates depending upon how it’s used.”

The university has contacted the unions and is set to begin negotiations, but the date has not been finalized as the five unions must decide whether or not to bargain collectively, and consult with each other and the university community as a whole. Union officials say they don’t expect bargaining to begin until after the holidays.

“Now we know what they want to do is institute the increase during the January break so when students return it’s a done deal,” said Goodkind. “They want the students to come back greeted by an increase without the opportunity to protest, that’s the traditional way of doing things. If you want to look for when bad things happen it’s during the summer and January. It’s pretty well calculated…I think the students ought to have a say.”