Parking discussions have been similar for years, some action might be taken this fall
When Mayor Bob Kelly took office in January 2016, he tasked the Parking Advisory with developing a roadmap to solutions.
Since then, little has changed.
The PAC has been working with the city’s parking contractor, SP+, to develop a strategic framework and financial plan.
The City Commission approved a contract for that effort last summer and the PAC started their meetings last September. The process was supposed to take five months.
In May, SP+ delivered a draft plan to the city that has yet to be presented to the City Commission.
In late July, the PAC was light on board member attendance, but continued discussion of possible options for improving the garages.
Security in the garages has long been a concern and last year, the city started collecting estimates for potential improvements to the lighting, camera and security equipment as well as garage entrances and revenue controls such as gates and pay stations.
Those items were discussed during the July meeting, just as they were discussed during a May 9, 2016 PAC meeting, among others.
There’s also an estimated $380,000 in deferred general maintenance within the parking program, according to a July 25 memo from Planning Director Craig Raymond to the PAC.
Estimates for the camera and security equipment are about $67,000. The lighting upgrades to LED are an estimated $237,000 and enclosing the lower levels of both garages is an estimated $280,000.
Improved lighting has been mentioned for years as a need and is mentioned in a 2013 parking study conducted by a third-party consultant.
Raymond has indicated that he plans to make a request this year for $150,000 in tax increment financing funds to help cover the cost, but the improvements will likely require debt financing.
Currently, the parking program doesn’t have any debt, though the program budget for this fiscal year has the program about $100,000 in negative.
The projects combined are nearing $1 million.
“It’s kind of sobering,” Raymond said during the July PAC meeting.
Enclosing the garages would help address the pigeon problems and transients using the garage for a public restroom or sleeping area, since maintenance crews spend time each morning cleaning up after them.
“How realistic is it at this point…I don’t know,” Raymond said. “I like the idea of enclosing them, however, I feel like it’s kind of a luxury in light of everything.”
The PAC has seemed to reach consensus on lighting and gate upgrades and said they’ll try to take a recommendation to the City Commission in September.
PAC member Katie Hanning said she didn’t think they needed to rush, but Raymond said, “I want to get this done.”
During a May work session with the City Commission, PAC members were asked if they had done any public outreach as part of the strategic plan effort.
Jeff Patterson, one of the newest PAC members, said they hadn’t done a major push for public input in this strategic planning effort.
But over the last few years, there have been multiple surveys, town halls and other efforts to gather public opinion on parking.
In 2016, the PAC also conducted an online survey that generated more than 800 responses, though some people took the survey multiple times. The PAC also held a town hall meeting that one PAC member said would be packed with hundreds of people, but fewer than a dozen attended. One attendee arrived on a riding lawn mower that he parked on the grass at the Civic Center.
The 2013 parking study also included a public survey.
During the July PAC meeting, Tina Grigsby of SP+ said the police department has been patrolling the garages more often and it’s been helpful. She said customers have noticed and mentioned that it makes them feel more comfortable.
Hanning said if they can make the garage feel safe, more people will park there.
“I think if you present a safe space, people will want to use it,” Hanning said.
In May, the PAC briefed the City Commission on their strategic planning process and included a summary of vandalism from 2017.
During the calendar year, there were a combined total of 25 vandalism reports in the city’s two parking garages.
Joan Redeen, a PAC member, said lighting and security upgrades could change behavior enough that the city doesn’t need to expend the money to enclose the facility.
Raymond said they’ve also had some discussions about downtown art and the potential for art in the garages to brighten up the space or potentially sell advertising space inside the garages to generate some additional revenue.
Hanning asked if the city could sell a garage or surface lot and Raymond said he asked a local real estate broker if such a market even exists for parking facilities, to which the answer was maybe.
Hanning asked Commissioner Mary Moe, who has attended some PAC meetings, if commissioners would entertain a sale.
Moe said she can’t speak for the entire commission, but believes the bigger question is how to generate more use of existing parking facilities.
She said she views the lot behind the Rocky Mountain Building as a key asset in the development of that project. The building has an underground parking garage, but NeighborWorks Great Falls has said they are asking the city for at least part of the surface lot in their plans to redevelop the building.
Raymond said the sale of any parking facility has to be weighed against the strategic framework and whether it hurts or helps the program.
Closing or selling a garage has also been discussed for years. Raymond has been adamant that closing a garage would contribute to blight downtown and would not recommend closing a garage without a plan for future use of some kind.
Shane Etzweiler of the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce asked about options for offering premium spots for higher rates.
Raymond said the hard part of that is enforcement since “that creates more demand on personnel costs.”
The city does have options for offering discounts and incentives since last year, staff proposed and the commission approved a provision that allows the city manager to negotiate and authorize special incentive rates for bulk parking leases in the garage and surface lots for customers who either lease numerous garage spaces and/or pre-pay leases for a period of one year or more. All fees for leases are non-refundable.
Staff was hoping the city can generate new revenue by attracting new customers to the parking system with the bulk or group discounts and pre-pay incentives for the monthly lot leases.
Hanning asked if the city had looked at having a private company manage the parking garages, a topic that has been debated for years by some current and former PAC members.
The city already contracts with SP+ for management of the city’s parking garages, surface lots, meter enforcement and light maintenance.
Raymond said there’s been some thought about having a private company take over, but then prices are driven by the market and it doesn’t always work well for municipalities. Given that the PAC updated their mission statement to include providing an adequate supply of affordable parking, the idea of privatizing parking conflicts with that mission.
One example of privatizing municipal parking gone awry is Chicago, where a $1.2 billion 75-year lease to a private company has caused rates to quadruple in some parts of town and the private investors are expected to recoup their cost by 2020 and then pocket the profits until 1975. The Atlantic reported that an inspector general review of the deal found it was worth at least $974 million more than the city had gotten for it. The deal also requires the city to reimburse the company when any parking spaces are out of service, costing Chicago millions more, though the city has been fighting that clause.
Over recent years, many major U.S. cities have backed away from privatized parking proposals based on Chicago’s fiasco and other concerns. For Great Falls, it’s unlikely a company would want to take on the city’s parking system given the small market.
Raymond said he has been reviewing the possibility of bringing the parking program back in-house instead of contracting with SP+ and an initial review found a potential savings of about $30,000 though that doesn’t include hiring a parking manager. He’s also further reviewing the program for savings through duplicated budget items between the city and SP+, and he expects that to be a few thousand.
Grigsby said SP+ has been working to make some improvements and have taken out all of the mechanical meters and replaced them with digital, making it easier for staff to calibrate. They’ve also adjusted all of the handicapped meters to an 8-hour time limit since those spaces don’t have time limits.
Grigsby said they’ve also acquired a handheld device for the digital meters that lets staff do audits of each meter and added hotline stickers with meter numbers and their number so people can report broken or malfunctioning meters to them for repair instead of calling the city planning office.
SP+ and the city have also been upping their marketing efforts for the Passport Parking app that allows users to pay for parking using their credit card and a mobile app. Some city commissioners said they didn’t know the city had a parking meter app, despite having been on the commission when the contract was approved.
Signs have been added to meter poles with zone numbers, but Grigsby said they’ve been having trouble with some people just picking a meter number instead of looking at the meter for the actual space number so they don’t get ticketed.
The meters also continue to accept coins and Grigsby said some people have gotten confused by the signs and assumed they only took the app now.
Raymond said app usage is now up to 5.1 percent of meter revenue, but they’re hoping for better utilization.
The PAC was planning to discuss different technology options with a corporate SP+ representative during the July meeting, but he missed it and they’re instead planning to have that conversation this month or next.
Great Falls continues to have some of the lowest parking rates in the state and consultants and staff alike have recommended rate increases over the years to generate more revenue to help cover needed repairs and operating expenses.
In 2014, staff recommended a phased plan to raise meter, fine and garage rates, among other changes. Commissioners at the time only adopted part of the recommendations and last year adopted other portions of the 2014 plan after staff again recommended the changes. Commissioners also approved a courtesy ticket, meaning the first time violation is a free, a move that is costing the city about $60,000 annually.
The courtesy ticket was designed to make parking downtown seem more friendly since a $5 ticket for a time violation was viewed as a turnoff to visitors.
Raymond said during the July work session that revenue from fines has been dropping and he’s studying that further to see what’s causing that trend.
The city’s parking program does compete with private parking garages and lots downtown that are able to offer lower prices since those property owners are typically generating revenue through apartment or commercial leases.
Some PAC members have said on many occasions that they believe the city should subsidize the parking program through the general fund.
During the May 15 commission work session, City Manager Greg Doyon said he’s been vocal about not subsidizing parking “because I have a broader understanding of where the city needs to go in terms of other endeavors.”
There are other items that need more immediate attention, Doyon said, such as the golf deficit of nearly $1 million.
Doyon told PAC members to be flexible since “your parking problems are never resolved because you have constantly evolving problems.”
Mayor Bob Kelly told PAC members again in July that the commission would be willing to try anything the PAC recommends.
“We’re not looking for the quick fix, we’re willing to try anything,” Kelly said.
In 2016, staff recommended removing meters in some underutilized areas downtown and ending enforcement of the residential parking area. In most cases, the feedback has been positive or people haven’t noticed the change. On 2nd Avenue South, however, it created a problem that didn’t exist previously and the GFPD officer assigned to downtown asked that the meters be restored.
As of Aug. 2, here’s the list of people with unpaid parking fines totaling $50 or more, according to city records:
$50 or more
$100 or more
Russell County Federal Credit Union
$150 or more
$200 or more
$400 or more