The El Dorado Police Department may have found what it believes is the best system to objectively address downtown parking enforcement issues and the El Dorado City Council has authorized the department to continue exploring options to purchase the system.
Police Chief Kenny Hickman proposed the idea to council members Thursday, saying the department is looking into a cloud-based computing system that would be used by a civil traffic warden to enforce the downtown parking ordinance.
Hickman said the equipment that will be needed to use the technology will cost the city "a little money" but the purchase will not be cost-prohibitive.
"I'm not ready to say that it's a sole source. It may be something we'll have to put out to bid, I don't know yet, but it's the best thing we've been able to find," Hickman began.
He said the system would cost more than $21,000 with an amortized contract, plus $4.25 for each parking citation that is issued.
"If it was equally spread out, it would be $15,000 (total) for the first three years and then a little over $3,000 (each) for the next two years after that and $4.25 per ticket," he continued.
He said the cost includes hardware and software, explaining that vehicles within the controlled parking zone -- which limits parking to three hours from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, with the exception of legal holidays, per city ordinance -- would be photographed and the stem position of tires logged so that the traffic warden would not have to touch the vehicles.
"And in three hours, you have an alarm and it tells you to go back and check that car," the police chief further explained.
"So, it's a very objective measure and then, it actually provides the license information through a software package into a hardware that they actually have a Bluetooth printer that goes with it that will print the citation out," he continued.
The information and evidence are then maintained in a cloud server.
Hickman reiterated the objectivity of the system in issuing citations.
"It doesn't get into, I think, so much of the, 'Well, I was there and then I moved and then I came back,' because the stem's not going to be in the same place," he said. "Also, it stores that information in a place where it's isolated and not manipulated and all and, I think, presented to the court."
Council Member Mike Rice asked if the EPD would be able to staff the civil traffic warden's position, noting that the department has at least three vacancies for uniformed personnel and earlier comments by Hickman that the department is spread thin.
Hickman explained that the traffic warden is a civilian position.
The city has been without a downtown parking enforcement officer since early 2019.
Council members voted in May of 2020 to fill the position, agreeing then to transfer the downtown parking enforcement officer and its responsibilities -- including salary, training and oversight -- from the Department of Public Works to the El Dorado Police Department.
Hickman said last year that the position would be formally called civil traffic warden.
The EPD has received several applications/resumes for the job.
However, since funding for the position was approved for the 2021 city budget, the hiring process was placed on hold until the council could finalize the city budget for fiscal year 2020 and adopt the 2021 budget, which was approved in August.
"I want to be really careful about that because I think it's going to be real important that we get the right person to that. It's not a law enforcement officer but they will have authority to do certain things," Hickman told council members Thursday.
Council Member Billy Blann asked if the position is full time and Hickman said yes, adding that the job will require training and the EPD's standards and training curriculum has been approved.
Hickman also said he would feel more comfortable speaking with Judge Jack Barker of the 35th Judicial District Court "to make sure that we're as airtight as we can be ..."
"I'm assuming, and that's not always a good thing, that this technology has been vetted?" Council Member Paul Choate asked.
Hickman said the city of Fayetteville uses a similar system to enforce applicable parking codes and that EPD Lt. Andrew Russell has researched the matter.
Hickman said he wanted the council's approval before going any further with hiring a civil traffic warden and training the person with the cloud-based technology to make sure council members "thought it was a worthwhile venture to invest that much money."
"It's going to be as much a PR position, as well as a functional position," Hickman said.
As he did in May 2020, Council Member Andre Rucks said he favored hiring a part-time parking attendant and installing parking meters downtown to generate revenue for the city.
Council Member Judy Ward noted that parking meters were used downtown several decades ago but they were removed because of the high cost of maintaining them.
Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer said that a downtown parking advisory board that was formed in 2019 to study the issue discussed a number of options, including re-installing parking meters, developing a campaign to encourage downtown visitors to walk, assigning police officers to a downtown beat, stricter enforcement for violations of the parking ordinance and implementing a mobile app that would take care of paid parking -- none of which were deemed viable by the group.
Council members voted in favor of the EPD proceeding with the idea that was presented by Hickman.
Choate, who made the motion to move forward with the EPD idea, said the software and hardware purchase would be considered a capital expenditure that could be covered by the city's reserve fund.
The comment was made to the consternation of Rucks, who said he feels the city has already spent "millions of dollars" to assist with downtown development and should invest in improving other areas of the city.
"Wow," Rucks said incredulously, with Council Member Willie McGhee echoing his sentiments.