Santa Rosa is moving forward with a plan to rip out dozens of relatively new downtown parking stations that merchants said were baffling to their customers and bad for business.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to move toward purchasing 215 new single-space meters meant to be more user-friendly, but which will also be more expensive to maintain.

Downtown business owners gathered more than 2,000 signatures on surveys showing customers preferred the newer single-space meters over the existing system.

The new single-space units, now common in cities like San Francisco and Portland, accept credit and debit cards as well as coins. The multispace stations did the same thing but required drivers to first find the station, get a slip of paper from the station, and then return to their vehicles to put that slip on their dashboards.

"As the owner of a convertible with a manual top, the current system does not work," said Mayor Scott Bartley, who owns a vintage Mercedes sportster. "I cannot put a little piece of paper on my dashboard with any hope that it'll remain there."

Several council members said they supported the switch largely because business owners hadn't just complained about the problem but had identified a viable solution.

"Thank you to the merchants downtown ... for really holding our feet to the fire and making sure that we re-evaluate the meter system to make sure we get something that works for everybody," Councilwoman Julie Combs said.

City parking officials are proposing to remove 30 of the 85 kiosks located on sidewalks on Third, Fourth and Fifth streets between B and E streets. They would be replaced with the 215 new meters at a cost of about $172,000.

The funds would all come from money set aside in the parking district budget specifically for parking improvements. For now, the pay stations will remain in downtown parking lots and other areas such as Railroad Square.

Bernie Schwartz, owner of California Luggage on Fourth Street, said he knows parking issues in Santa Rosa can be "a real can of worms," but he appreciated the council's willingness to try something new.

Merchants were supportive of the multispace meters when they were tested in 2008, believing they would be convenient for those who wanted to pay with a card and would make the sidewalk less cluttered. But "almost immediately, it was a problem," Schwartz said.

"I can say that after four or five years, those challenges have stayed," he said.

While the new meters are supposed to be more intuitive for drivers, the move left the council open to criticism that it wasn't getting enough life out of its initial investment in the pay stations, which cost $7,150 each about four years ago and were estimated at the time to have a 10-year life.

Robin Abramson, a retired parking enforcement officer, said she was appalled the city would consider spending money on a new system so soon.

"I find is wasteful to switch something now when it's not even very old," Abramson said.

She noted that the kiosks were purchased and installed largely because the previous coin-only meters were so old and it was becoming difficult to find parts for them.

But Kim Nadeau, the head of the city's parking division, estimated that about half of the 30 multispace meters to be removed could be reused in other locations, while the remainder could be resold.

That heartened several council members who were loath to be seen as wasting money.

"We wouldn't just be chucking them out. We would be utilizing a lot of them," Councilman Gary Wysocky said.

The bigger problem, however, would be the increase in operating costs for new single-space meters, which, because there are more of them, have higher connection fees and transaction fees and, and because they are smaller, need to be emptied of coins more often.

That could cost the parking district about $20,000 more in operating expenses per year, a figure that will become clearer once a vendor is selected, Nadeau explained. She expects that could happen by August.

To pay for the increased costs, Nadeau said she would probably recommend the council increase parking rates from the current $1 per hour. She didn't yet know how much of an increase would be needed.

Councilman Jake Ours also suggested that a parking rate increase might be in the city's future, but for a different reason.

Ours said the city should explore increasing rates, perhaps by 5 or 10 cents per hour, to pay for the upkeep of the downtown now that redevelopment dollars have disappeared.

"It's going to get pretty seedy if we can't keep it up."

Ours said he was pleased to see merchants proposing a solution because they have a lot of good ideas about how to make the downtown successful.

"Starting this is maybe the first step in improving our relationship with our downtown merchants. I sure hope it is," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.