Parking board beginning strategic planning process

The Parking Advisory Commission took their first stab at a strategic plan with SP+, the city’s parking contractor, during a nearly two-hour meeting last Thursday.

But, they spent about half the meeting off topic and talking over each other.

Staff sent the PAC a memo on Aug. 29 detailing the process and objectives for the Sept. 21 meeting. The memo asked that PAC members prepare for the discussion.

Earlier this year, the City Commission voted to spend up to $20,000 on a contract with SP+ to analyze the parking program and develop a strategic plan. That budget item grew out of a conversation between Craig Raymond, city planning director, and Greg Doyon, city manager.

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Early in this year’s budget process, Raymond told Doyon that he wanted to hire a full-time parking director since he didn’t have the time to devote full attention to the parking program. Raymond and his deputy Tom Micuda oversee a department tasked with managing large and small developments, permits, administration of the safety inspections, code enforcement, zoning, sign code, land use, Community Development Block Grant program, historic preservation, Civic Center facility management and more.

Casey Jones, vice president of SP+ overseeing municipal services, came to the meeting to walk the PAC through the process. Jones previously ran the off-street parking program in Portland, Ore. and has worked with business improvement districts. He’s originally from Bozeman.

Municipal parking, Jones said, “it’s very different than commercial parking, it’s very different than retail parking.”

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Jones and Greg Hoffman, regional manager for SP+, will be discussing the parking system with staff, the PAC, their own staff in town and the community to develop a strategic plan for the city.

“On its face, it seems like such a simple thing,” Jones said. “This system serves multiple competing interests. It’s not difficult to get wrapped up in the minutiae of parking.”

Jones said they’ve been asked by the city to look at management of the program and develop a strategic framework with guiding principles as well as a financial plan. Without strategic direction, Jones said, cities deal with operations issues in isolation.

“I really believe a lot of this is going to be uncomfortable,” Jones said. “This is not going to be easy.”

Parking management for a municipality has to serve some purpose, Jones said. The best purpose is often to promote economic vitality, he said.

The PAC adopted a new mission statement last spring. Some PAC members said during last week’s meeting that the mission statement had never been published beyond their own minutes, but that mission statement is on the city website, in city documents that are readily available and it was published in Great Falls Tribune stories.

The mission statement the PAC adopted last year was: “The downtown parking program exists to support and enhance a unique blend of businesses, local shops, restaurants, entertainment venues and special events. The program is committed to enhancing the downtown experience for customers, residents and other stakeholders. Parking and transportation planning, policies and programs will effectively support the community’s strategic goals and objectives.”

Downtown Parking

Downtown Parking on a weekday afternoon in Great Falls.

Katie Hanning, a new PAC member and head of the Home Builders Association of Great Falls, attended her second meeting last week and said she’s been doing a lot of research about parking and the way other cities handle their systems.

She did not know the PAC had a mission statement, nor had she read it.

Hanning asked why they were going through the process at all if they had a mission statement. She said there was little to discuss beyond ensuring safety at the parking garages and that if anything were to happen in a garage, the city could be sued.

According to city staff, anyone who buys a parking space in the garages signs a waiver releasing the city from liability. The city also carries insurance.

Hanning continued to push on security concerns and her belief that the city will be sued over something that happens in a parking garage.

Jones tells Hanning her concerns are valid, but are not objectives, and not the focus of the strategic plan.

“I think you’re doing a disservice by stifling the conversation beyond what you’re talking about,” Raymond said when the PAC chair Bill Mintsiveris did nothing to restore order to the meeting.

Jones told Hanning to keep sight of her concerns but, “I wouldn’t build objectives around what are expectations. I think you’re missing the big picture.”

Raymond said that the city was working on improving security at the garages and last month presented designs and estimated costs for new gates and lights.

Security gates and pay stations are estimated at $230,000 and a new surveillance system is estimated at $50,000. The City Commission recently approved a professional services agreement not to exceed $58,000 with McKinstry Essention, LLC to perform an investment grade energy audit and develop a comprehensive energy services proposal for the parking garages, as well as several other city facilities including the Civic Center, police and fire stations.

Jones said that developing guiding principles was critical in that they help manage decisions on rates, program changes, investments and the overall management of the parking program.

“There’s nothing easy about this,” Jones said.

SP+ works in more than 70 cities and Jones said they have a good sense of what works. Great Falls shares characteristics with other cities, but whatever they develop as a strategic plan must be contextualized for Great Falls.

Hanning said she isn’t interested in spending a year talking about this plan, but wants to make recommendations to the City Commission.

Raymond’s Aug. 29 memo to the PAC indicates that the process will take five months.

“This is foundational stuff,” Jones said.

Campbell asked Jones and Hoffman why they haven’t given the city ideas previously since SP+ has been with the city for years.

Jones said that operating a system and strategic planning are two different things and “I don’t know that we’ve been asked to do this before.”

Raymond said that for the most part, the city has relied on the PAC and staff to do this kind of planning. He added that SP+ has always done what they are asked to do through the contracts approved by the City Commission.

Jones asked the PAC to go around the table to name strengths of the parking system.

Campbell said that the varied facilities were convenient for different uses and there was plentiful parking. Rates are also among lowest in the state.

Lee Weigand, new PAC member, said his customers complain about parking and when Jones asked that he focus on strengths for this portion of the meeting, Weigand said he couldn’t think of any.

Joan Redeen, representing the Business Improvement District, said that the consistency of SP+ staff is a program strength.

Raymond said the parking program has zero debt, which is a major financial strength for the city.

Redeen added that the wayfinding project is underway to improve signage throughout the downtown and it will include some parking signage.

Campbell said that people don’t like parking meters in a small town, but he believes they’re necessary.

Dave Snuggs said that the city doesn’t need parking enforcement but instead needs “parking liaisons,” someone to smile and say hello.

He said that some people view parking funds as going to SP+, but Jones and Raymond said that was incorrect. The city contracts SP+ to manage the garages and handle parking enforcement, but all of the revenue collected comes to the city.

Snuggs also said that he doesn’t like spinning wheels and wants action. The PAC has cancelled several meetings this year due to lack of quorum and Snuggs missed the May through August meetings.

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Staff is coordinating with PAC members to set the next meeting, but Raymond requested that going forward the members stay on the agenda so they can complete their strategic plan.

“We wasted at least half our meeting off topic,” Raymond said.

Jones asked the PAC to consider strengths and weaknesses of the program as well as if the mission statement still fits and to send him feedback until their next meeting.

“We need to stay on topic and get this done,” Campbell said.

No members of the City Commission attended the PAC meeting. After being elected, Mayor Bob Kelly tasked Fred Burow and Tracy Houck to serve as the commission liaisons to the PAC. In recent commission meetings, Bill Bronson expressed major concerns with the parking program in recent meetings.

During the Sept. 5 City Commission meeting, Bronson said the commission will have to have discussion about selling surface lots and that in the absence of a more comprehensive approach, he didn’t think the commission should consider the rate increases at the parking garages. Those rate increases were originally proposed in 2014 and the commission did not act at that time, but approved them last week.

Bronson also suggested that commissioners will have to discuss whether the city can continue to operate two parking garages, at least until the downtown sees substantial growth.

In response, Raymond said they were starting the strategic plan and in the meantime, we’re making incremental changes knowing more adjustments would be likely.

But without a definite buyer with a real plan to operate or otherwise maintain a parking garage, Raymond said, “I am never going to recommend spreading blight and slum.”

For some background on parking in Great Falls, the City Commission passed an ordinance in September 1947 to install meters downtown.

That ordinance came after a public vote during a 1949 general election in which the majority of voters supported keeping parking meters after a 18-month test run.

The ordinance also established two-hour parking time limits and set parking rates at 1 cent for 12 minutes; 2 cents for 24 minutes; 3 cents for 36 minutes; 4 cents for 48 minutes and 5 cents for an hour. Meters were enforced between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. except Sundays and legal holidays.