Were Bay Street a laboratory, the choice confronting the Beaufort City Council would be worthy of a political scientist's microscope: Does good governance require council members to bend to demands to remove controversial parking kiosks? Or is it their duty to leave the kiosks in place because, in the long run, they will prove more flexible and efficient than the alternatives?
But Bay Street is in the real world, where the council's decision will produce real consequences and real costs.
That is why -- notwithstanding legitimate criticism of fees, time limits and other aspects of the new parking system the city rolled out this past July -- the kiosks should stay.
Swapping out the six kiosks on Bay Street for new, double-space coin meters would set the city back about $34,000, not including installation. Returning the old coin-operated meters also would entail labor costs, and either alternative would mean less-than-best use of 12 kiosks purchased for a total of $144,000.
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That's too much to pay for retrograde technology.
And some of the most ardent opponents of the kiosks -- merchants who assert they are not customer-friendly -- would see them replaced with meters that accept only one form of payment and that will never be operated by the mobile devices their customers frequently tote.
Criticism of such a contradiction is tempered by the merchants' understandable anxiety. The economy is taking a bite out of us all, and two more long-time Bay Street businesses have closed or announced plans to close in recent weeks.
It's possible the increase in parking rates and stricter enforcement is turning away shoppers. But it's highly unlikely that in a district where out-of-town shoppers are vital, that business is hurt by technology used successfully elsewhere.
Mayor Billy Keyserling resorted to bribery to keep the conversation about parking civil during Tuesday's council meeting -- he offered candy to those in attendance. But as with Keyserling's box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get with the townsfolk.
The kiosk system was adopted to address complaints that some businesses' employees were monopolizing Bay Street spaces and crowding out customers. This happened because enforcement was egregiously lax.
That problem is solved, but now some of those same people are asking the city, as a good-faith gesture, to make downtown parking free for an indefinite period. This would introduce a new problem -- nothing is for free. Either someone would need to be paid to enforce time limits even after the parking system's revenue stream is cut off, or enforcement ceases and businesses bear the cost of parking spaces that are never vacated.
The choice before the council: Do what seems popular or do what seems wise.
Expect complaints whatever course is selected.