The Santa Barbara City Council Finance Committee approved an fee increase yesterday that could leave downtown shoppers paying more for their parking spaces.

The committee recommended that the city increase downtown parking rates by 50 cents per hour, while continuing to provide 75 minutes of free parking in all city owned garages. Finance Committee member and Councilman Roger Horton said the city council now has to approve the increase, which could take effect Jan. 2. The council has yet to set a date for discussing the fee increase, but will do so soon.

Horton said the additional revenue from the fee increase would be used to pay for the Downtown Parking Program, which is responsible for maintenance in downtown garages. According to the meeting’s agenda, the Downtown Parking Program must raise $1.8 million annually in order to continue providing adequate parking facilities and customer service.

“The parking department is self-supporting, they don’t get city funds,” Horton said. “They have to generate the revenue that they operate on and they have not been able to generate enough revenue to pay for the wear and tear and depreciation on the parking garages, so they need an increase to make sure [the garages] are safe, and the elevators work and the restrooms are kept up.”

Horton said the Finance Committee spent an hour at the meeting discussing whether or not the proposed fee-increase plan would provide enough revenue to meet the Downtown Parking Program’s needs. He said the committee wanted to be sure the plan would take into account the way inflation could raise the amount of money it costs for the garages to operate.

“[We wanted] to make sure there was additional compensation for cost increases and to make the repairs they need to make on the structures,” Horton said. “We questioned it for like an hour.”

The proposal for the fee increase is the result of at least 20 community discussions between local residents, merchants and community leaders. Many local businesses owners said they opposed the increase because they think it will make it harder for them to compete with places like La Cumbre Plaza, which offers free parking, Horton said.

“Not all the merchants are happy to have a rate of any kind and they would prefer not to have any rates at all, but on the other hand they’ve had so much input and I think most people know we need some sort of fee,” Horton said. “It’s not 100 percent popular, but it’s something most people know is necessary.”

Marty Bebout, who co-owns the Blue Bee clothing store downtown, said he understands the need for a parking fee but he thinks the stores already pay for their customers’ parking.

“The businesses also pay a pretty high tax for parking, so it makes me a little bit bitter,” Bebout said. “But it’s nice that they provide public parking downtown, so I think it’s a good deal. You can’t go to any private parking lot and park for the first hour for free.”

While many people park in the downtown garages for more than one hour, Bebout said he does not think the increased fees would keep locals from frequenting downtown vendors.

“Obviously, I think it’s better for business if parking is free,” Bebout said. “I think that people go downtown and they spend several hours. But do I think our local Santa Barbara people really care if they have to pay $3, $8 or $20? Probably not. I think they can afford it.”