Charleston County to study selling or privatizing 2 parking facilities

Charleston County owns this parking garage on Queen Street, and one on Cumberland Street.

Charleston County operates two parking garages in downtown Charleston that together produce nearly a half-million dollars in operating income each year, and officials are discussing whether it would make sense to privatize or sell them.

County Council members asked the staff to research the possibilities, and the pros and cons of such decisions.

"We've had a couple of people in the private sector interested in buying or leasing our garages," said Council Chairman Teddie Pryor.

An analysis the council is set to discuss this evening suggests that the garages, on Queen Street and on Cumberland Street, could be worth more than $33 million in a sale.

However, the county would then have to spend more than $2.2 million every year to provide parking for county employees, jurors and law enforcement officials.

Currently, employees, jurors, judges, law enforcement officials, county officials, members of the legislative delegation and people attending church services park at the garages for free, the staff analysis said.

"On the analysis of a sale, we feel that it would not benefit the county," Deputy County Administrator Walt Smalls said. "It would mean a perpetual increase (in expenses) to the general fund."

Barring a sale, there's still the question of privatizing the garage operations.

The city of Charleston privatized its much larger network of parking garages in the late 1990s, and earns money from the garages each year.

The city pays the operating expenses and pays Republic Parking to operate the garages.

City Chief Financial Officer Steve Bedard said the deal limits the city's risk, and turns management over to people who run parking garages for a living. He said the city has not considered selling the garages, because they make money while serving a public need.

Pryor said the county could really only consider privatizing one of its two garages, the larger one on Cumberland Street between St. Philip and Meeting streets. The other garage is connected to the county courthouse, and law enforcement use of the garage involves some security issues, he said.

"We wouldn't think of privatizing that one," Pryor said. "It just wouldn't work, with the sheriff bringing prisoners in there and judges parking there."

Councilwoman Colleen Condon said it's always a good idea to check and make sure county operations are being run efficiently.

"The thought was, does it make sense for us to do it?" she said. "But it isn't a business for us, it's a service."

The discussion comes at a time when the county is poised to spend more than $2 million on the final phase of a repair program for the two garages.

The county currently carries about $4 million in debt for one of the garages. The other is owned free and clear.