Parking rules raise hackles in Benton City

BENTON CITY -- Almost two dozen business people jammed City Hall on Tuesday night to protest off-street parking requirements in downtown Benton City and forcing new businesses to bring old buildings up to code.

Speakers at the special workshop said the city's rules, while consistent with state codes, were onerous and pose hardship on small-business owners.

"We're losing revenue here," said Councilwoman Honda Johnson, who also owns Daddyo's restaurant.

She said requiring off-street parking for existing buildings just because of a change of use is confusing. She also said it made little sense that a business can exist without upgrading to codes, while another business in the same location is forced to spend thousands of dollars to make the changes.

"We can't afford it," Johnson said.

Randy Rutledge, coordinator of Benton City's Economic Development Council, described the off-street parking regulation as a "solutionto a problem we don't even have." He said other cities in the county have foundalternatives for theirdowntown parking issues.

"Some business owners say off-street parking requirements are making them decide not to open a business here," he said.

The city's strict approach toward businesses also has put off contractors who want to build in the city, Rutledge said.

"I'm hearing from contractors they are not welcome here. We should encourage growth, not discourage it," he said.

Mayor Lloyd Carnahan said he is for growth and says people with issues should call so he can personally get involved in finding solutions.

As a small municipality, Benton City does not have a full-time planner or city administrator. The mayor and city clerk-treasurer handle virtually all the administrative duties and consult with an attorney hired on an as-needed basis.

Carnahan said a city ordinance adopted in 2003 that makes off-street parking exempt on older buildings, with the mayor's approval, should clear up most of the angst about downtown parking.

Rick Eder, owner of Redneck Pawn on Della Street, said he ran into trouble with City Hall when he wanted add a U-Haul dealership to his business because it meant having to get more permits.

Eder ran into more municipal regulations when he decided to replace the pawn shop with a small engine repair business.

That triggered more regulations, which he claims were not required of the previous owner who also had a small engine repair business.

"There should've been a better way to handle it. Now I want to just close and go somewhere else," he said.

Lee Kerr, city attorney, said city staff were struggling to keep up with state-imposed regulations.

"There is constant change and we need to educate our staff," he said.

Mary Smith told the council she has been trying to open a farm mercantile business in the former city fire station since February. But the city's off-street parking and rules on upgrading to current codes whenever an existing building has a change of use have kept her unable to achieve her goal.

"My hands are tied because of all the regulations," she said.

Lorna Deckert, a former councilwoman, said Benton City officials should try to be as friendly as possible to new businesses.

"It's small business who need all the help we can give them," she said.

Councilwoman Johnson noted that a letter from the economic development council complained about some city staff being rude to citizens.

"There are complaints about the lack of friendliness (at City Hall). People don't like coming to the building," said Bea Baker, chairwoman of the economic development council.

"Some people leave City Hall shaking their heads," said Johnson, who suggested city staff receive training in customer relations, similar to what was done with employees at U.S. Bank.

Robbin Hall, bank branch manager, said she had the training, then shared it with her staff, and would do the same for city employees, if the mayor was interested.

"Yes, we can," Carnahan said.

-- John Trumbo: 582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com