Business owners talk police issues with Bath Council
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 50 business owners and citizens jammed into Bath Town Council chambers on Wednesday afternoon, May 16, to discuss concerns about town police with the Town Police Committee.
Mayor Susan Webster said it was great to see so many people attend the meeting.
The Police Committee members — Webster and Councilmen Dale Lutman and Kenny Easton — were joined at the front table by council members David Crosby and Nancy Harvey.
Harvey read a statement setting the ground rules. She said speakers would be limited to three minutes and should be courteous with no derogatory remarks.
Sally Marshall of Travel Berkeley Springs and Chuck Wheeler, president of the Berkeley Springs-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, asked if they could read their prepared statements first.
Marshall said Travel Berkeley Springs spends thousands of dollars a year advertising Berkeley Springs and Morgan County as a tourist destination.
"We promote it as a small, safe, quiet town with lots to do," she said.
Marshall said travel spending in Morgan County generates over $28 million, provides 460 jobs and raises $162,000 in local taxes annually.
"Tourism is what we are all about. Some of your police policies may be putting this at risk," Marshall said.
"We all recognize the town has a severe parking shortage. With courthouse construction, the situation simply worsens. This is a real hardship on local residents, businesses and tourists," Marshall said.
When there are special events like the recent plant sale or the initial First Friday of the season, many people turn away because they can't find parking, she said.
Marshall suggested that a formal parking survey be conducted as soon as possible. Other suggestions included marking on-street parking spots and reinstating parking spaces that were removed in the past.
Marshall requested the town cease parking enforcement on Saturdays and rely on the honor system. She said many visitors are not used to Saturday enforcement and guests at the inns often don't get up by 9 a.m. to feed meters.
"There is an opportunity for the enforcement officer to be seen as a town ambassador — friendly, informative and helpful, while at the same time doing his job writing tickets in a professional and respectful manner," she said. "There is no need to be disrespectful, rude or nasty as so many of our visitors have sadly reported time and again."
Marshall questioned the need for three or four police cars and the police dog at routine traffic stops.
"It is not good to escalate every incident into a major scene," she said.
Marshall concluded by saying: "We understand and appreciate the need for necessary police activities. We ask only that they be carried out with respect for our law-abiding citizens and our visitors. And I hope this is the beginning of a constructive communications process."
Mayor Webster said there have been times when Travel Berkeley Springs and the Chamber of Commerce came to council meetings and she would like to see them more often.
Webster also thought an idea for a Business Advisory Committee to the town council, as suggested in a Morgan Messenger editorial on May 16 was an idea that should be pursued.
Chamber President Chuck Wheeler began by emphasizing that the business community supports efficient, effective, professional policing.
"We recognize that there are serious problems in this community that require aggressive law enforcement, and many of us have firsthand experience with these problems," Wheeler said.
Wheeler limited his remarks to parking issues, which he believes are having the most impact on downtown businesses.
Wheeler said he'd told a West Virginia Design Team last fall that the town's parking policy is not visitor friendly because the focus is on revenue generation rather than accommodating visitors. The design team was studying the downtown area as part of the council's Streetscape project.
"Tourists don't intentionally try to rob the town of a quarter when they come here," he said. "In most cases, they lose track of time while spending money at one of our restaurants, shops, galleries or sleeping in on Saturday morning while staying at one of our lodging facilities."
"Parking violations are not criminal offenses and unfortunately, I think our officer is treating them as criminal offenses," Wheeler said.
Wheeler agreed with Marshall that parking should not be enforced rigorously on Saturday.
"On any given Saturday, out-of-towners spend anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 on Fairfax Street. In contrast, the 14 parking meters on Fairfax Street generate at most, if they are filled all day, $28 in revenue. We have great difficulty understanding how a town policy would alienate a primary business street over $28 in fees," Wheeler said.
Tamme Marggraf, who owns an acupuncture business on Fairfax Street, said police didn't have the "pulse" of the town and don't know what the concerns are.
One parking issue that she has is that most of the meters near her business are for two hours, but her appointments last around two hours and many of her customers are receiving tickets.
Marggraf said she reduced her prices by $5 to make up for her clients getting tickets. She requested meters that allow more time.
The mayor replied that one reason for the shorter meter times is to insure fast turnaround of parking spaces in the business district. Meters with longer times might cause employees of downtown businesses to monopolize those parking spaces, she said.
Webster said they'd tried to have a long term parking lot four years ago in a lot behind BB&T. The charge was $15 a month.
"We thought the business community would like that, and maybe park there themselves or pay for a couple of spaces for their employees," Webster said. But only one customer used the lot and the town abandoned the idea.
Bob Marggraf asked the town to look at the business case for the cost of parking meters and enforcement versus revenue.
"That is being looked at," Finance Chairman David Crosby said.
Bob Dugan of Coldwell Banker said he sometimes leaves an extra quarter in the meter but doesn't turn it down because he is not sure how long he will be gone. He received a ticket even though the money was in the meter slot. He suggested that before a ticket is written, the officer turn the meter over.
Jim Hoyt wanted to know if it was fair to issue tickets to cars in unmarked and un-metered spaces such as in front of the Rock Shop and apartments on Wilkes Street.
Robert Pollick, owner of an ice cream shop on Fairfax Street, said he surveyed the meters and found that a quarter might buy 15, 30, 60 or 120 minutes depending on the meter. He asked for some consistency.
"We will try to fix that," Crosby said.
Gordon MacLeod wished that Police Chief James Minton had been at the meeting so he could hear the comments and suggestions.
Webster said she asked Minton not to attend so people would feel free to talk.
Support for police
Deborah Minton, the chief's wife, said: "My husband is very approachable. If you have a problem come to him."
"There are many things that he does. There are many cans of worms that are opened that he has to deal with and many fires to put out," she said.
Jeannie Ford pointed to the drug problem in town and in our schools.
"Not a day goes by without drugs being found in a car during a traffic stop. I think the police are doing a fine job," said Ford, whose grandson Richard Haynes is a town officer.
Nancy Sostaric, owner of the Country Inn, spoke about the drug problem in the park.
"There's hardly a weekend that goes by that I haven't had to call the police. Things have quieted down the last several weekends."
"The park was an awful, awful place. People come here with a very different idea of what they should be doing or not be doing.