Butler County parking garage automation still stalled

The Butler County parking garage automation project has stalled again as county officials say the vendor is struggling with the nationwide labor shortage and other issues.

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During budget hearings in 2015, Commissioner Cindy Carpenter dubbed the five-story structure at the corner of Court Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard their “stone age” garage, but it has still taken several years to get the wheels turning on automating it.

The 600-space garage currently operates as a cash-only, pay-at-the-gate operation. Proposals through the years to automate the garage, making it more user-friendly and generating revenue from community events several years ago ranged from $100,000 to $400,000.

Cost was a factor at first, but now remnants of the pandemic have slowed progress on the project, according to County Administrator Judi Boyko. She told the commissioners during a recent budget hearing on the garage “what we’re experiencing in terms of the decrease in workforce and the challenge to find capable people to perform our operations all of our vendors are experiencing similarly.”

“We have a lot of back end programming to make sure all the systems talk to one another and we’ve experienced a very slow process,” she said. “We’re all very eager to get the automation in place.”

Originally the automation project was supposed to be complete by the end of March, then it was pushed back to the summer and now the estimate is by year’s end.

“The county is going to ensure that when this is launched and reformatted as automation that it’s going to be seamless for the end-user and the operational side of things are going to be completely functional,” Boyko said. “The second thing is the vendor has had significant demands on its workforce and the communication has been at times delayed.”

The commissioners approved $200,000 in January to fully automate the garage that will be open 24/7 and allow drivers to use cash or credit to pay. The project means more revenues can be generated from parkers who use the garage in the evenings and on weekends.

Commissioners Don Dixon and T.C. Rogers told the Journal-News that while the delay is frustrating, they understand business is not as usual these days.

“As a builder I know that there are problems with supply chain, which we never had before,” Rogers said. “So it’s just part of the way of life as it is at the moment.”

When it is complete the entrance and exits will look the same except there will not be a garage attendant manning the booth on Court Street anymore.

There will be a pay station that takes cash or credit in the first floor lobby of the garage and another inside the GSC by the breezeway that connects the two buildings on the second floor.

There are a number of different parking arrangements at the garage. People can pay $40 a month for a reserved spot, jurors and law enforcement and fire officials from county jurisdictions and some others park for free and then daily parkers who pay a maximum of $6.50. There will be an online pay option for monthly parking.

In recent months drivers have probably noticed the gates have been up allowing people to park for free as garage attendants have quit knowing automation was coming. Boyko told the Journal-News they estimate they have lost about $100 a day in lost parking fees when the pay booth is unmanned.

The last employee, lead garage attendant Kevin Johnston resigned effective Oct. 21, so Mark Gadd, the former facilities manager who is now the special projects coordinator has been filling in when he can. He told the commissioners this situation is not ideal and they need to find a new attendant.

“Staffing right now is a bit of challenge,” Gadd said. “We’ve lost three people, pretty much the entire garage staff and I’m the only one that’s trained to operate the equipment so I’m filling in until we can either automate or get someone hired.”

Even when the garage is fully automated the county still needs someone to troubleshoot so they have posted the garage attendant position with a salary range of $15.94 to $19.08.

“That position will continue to monitor the garage, monitor the operations when automation is in place and try to work more on the customer side,” Boyko said. “There is still troubleshooting with kiosks and pay stations and helping people navigate that.”

Carpenter is not happy.

“I am very frustrated,” she said adding they need to get the attendant position filled because putting Gadd in the pay booth “is not a good use of his expertise.”

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