Great Falls parking board recommends taking on debt for downtown parking garage repairs

Changes could be coming to the Great Falls downtown parking system.

On Monday, the Parking Advisory Commission voted to recommend that the go into debt to make all repairs to the parking garages, including deferred general maintenance, new lighting, new security cameras and more.

The action includes calculating the cost of the deferred maintenance and call for a percentage that will rebuild that amount over the next decade.

Parking discussions have been similar for years, some action might be taken this fall

Those recommendations will next go to the City Commission for further review.

Garage repairs and improvements are an estimated $568,908 plus another $145,000 of maintenance that would need to be completed in 2021.

A possible funding package discussed during Monday’s meeting includes $150,000 in reserve outlay, though reserves are dwindling; tax increment financing funds, contingent on Downtown Development Partnership and City Commission approval; and $268,908 in debt financing with an approximate annual $37,000 payment.

Parking board continues strategic planning effort

Looking forward, Planning Director Craig Raymond suggested budgeting $100,000 annually for maintenance, a figure coupled with the $100,000 operational budget deficit in this fiscal year.

Raymond also crunched some numbers on leasing out surface parking lot and said if that happened, they’d cut one staff position for a $46,000 annual savings.

But that option also runs the risk of losing up to $65,000 annually in revenue. That figure is for all of the city’s surface lots.

Raymond told the PAC that they’d be better off looking at options for selling lots than leasing since they’d lose money.

Jeff Patterson, a PAC board member, said he’d prefer holding onto the surface lots as assets since the downtown parking situation could change depending on business activity and development.

The city currently leases a parking lot to the Rescue Mission for $500 annually. To make parking lot leases a viable financial option, the city would need to make about $20,000 in annual revenue from lease payments.

Dane Lyon from SP+, the city’s parking contractor, said that he’d be concerned about creating competition with the city’s metered parking with its own assets under lease agreements.

Another possible option is switching software providers for parking since the city has been having problems with T2, the current software company, ever since it signed the contract a few years ago, Raymond said.

The city has had some discussions with Passport Parking about switching to their software and based on their rough estimates, that switch could save the city about $18,000, Raymond said.

Passport Parking is the system the city currently uses for the smartphone parking app on downtown meters.

Another potential change would be splitting from SP+, which has been the city’s parking contractor for about 30 years, and bringing the parking program in house. That could save about $35,000, Raymond said.

If the city made that move, Raymond said he could hire a parking manager to take the program off his plate so he can focus on other major projects like overhauling the development process.

Without hiring a parking manager, the split from SP+ could save an estimated $124,000, Raymond said.

“That work needs to be done,” Patterson said and didn’t support bringing that inhouse currently.

But in looking at the parking budget situation, Raymond said “choices are going to have to be made.”

Patterson said to run the program like an enterprise operation, the best option would be to close the south parking garage.

But City Commissioner Mary Moe said that doesn’t eliminate maintenance costs and Raymond has said on many occasions that he won’t recommend closing a garage because of the contribution it would make to blight and the effect to downtown.

Patterson said he wanted to have more discussion at the next PAC meeting about possible revenue generators for parking, such as higher rates or reducing the time limit to one hour on Central.

Lyon from SP+ said he would put together some scenarios for how that might look for the next meeting, which will be sometime later this month.

Katie Hanning, a PAC board member, suggested removing meters but keeping the time limits and significantly increasing fines.

Making those kinds of changes would require City Commission approval and the earliest that would likely be is a December meeting.

The PAC is also having discussions about membership and attendance since two members, Bill Mintsiveris and Lee Wiegand, have missed a number of meetings and the city has policy for advisory board members on attendance. It also creates quorum issues if any other member of the five-member board plus an ex officio member from the Business Improvement District, has a scheduling conflict.

Patterson said he will reach out to those two members to gauge their interest in continuing to serve on the board and based on those discussions, the city may move forward with removing them from the PAC and advertising for new members.