Parking pain: key things to know about the city parking system as meter rate increases, garage repairs considered

Roughly two dozen downtown business owners gathered at Electric City Coffee on Monday to learn about the city’s parking system and the proposed changes, including a meter rate hike.

Jeff Patterson, of the city’s Parking Advisory Board, as well as Craig Raymond, city planning director, shared information about the program and answered questions from the group.

Board recommends rate hike for downtown parking meters to fund garage repairs

Thad Reiste, owner of Electric City Coffee, organized the meeting and told the group that if they don’t suggest ideas to the city, they’ll get something they don’t like and complaining won’t help anyone.

The meeting showed the need for greater communication and awareness of the proposal from the Parking Advisory Commission and the parking program itself.

So, we’re taking it back to basics with some key things to know about the city’s parking program. This list is by no means all inclusive of all parking issues, but it’s a starting point we’ll continue to build on in upcoming stories. Links to our past coverage on the parking system are interspersed below as well.

Q: Where did the meters come from?

A: In September 1947, the City Commission passed an ordinance to install meters downtown. In the 1949 general election, Great Falls voters supported keeping meters after an 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.

Q: When’s the last time meter rates were increased?

A: In 2008, the meter rates were increased from 25 cents per hour to the current rate of 50 cents per hour. In 1947 the rate was 5 cents per hour, which if adjusted for inflation to today’s dollars is equivalent to 55 cents, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s inflation calculator.

Q: What is the proposal on the table?

A: The Parking Advisory Commission voted in October to recommend that the city increase meter rates to $2 on Central Avenue, from the Civic Center to 7th Street; $1.50 on the blocks immediately off Central in that area and around the county courthouse; and $1 in all other areas.

Great Falls parking primer: Challenges, ideas and proposals 2017-2018

No change is proposed to the garage rates and PAC members said the purpose of the rate increase is to push people to park in the garages if they’re planning to spend more time downtown instead of taking up high demand spots on Central.

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

The proposal includes a recommendation that the city establish a parking validation program that downtown merchants could opt in to if they so choose; as well as upgrade city’s two parking garages with the technology to accommodate the validation program.

Q: Why didn’t the city make smaller increases to meter rates sooner to help cover costs?

A. Staff recommended a four-year phased plan in 2014 to address deferred maintenance. That plan included a graduated fine scheduled for time violations, other fee increases and recommended a meter increase to 75 percent per hour that would have been implemented this year. Commissioners opted not to adopt that recommendation.

Commission approves parking fee increase; training requirement for elected, appointed officials

Q: Is there a compromise option on meter rates?

A. Nothing has been decided since the City Commission has final approval, but sensing that commissioners would balk at quadrupling the rate on Central and that it wouldn’t be well received downtown, Planning Director Craig Raymond suggested that meter rates be increased to $1.25 per hour throughout the meter district, implementing a flat $20 fine for time violations and reducing the courtesy ticket to a one per lifetime of a license plate option. The PAC voted to adopt that as a backup plan.

Free holiday parking downtown

Q: Why did I get a $10 or $20 ticket?

A: You probably have multiple time violations or committed another parking infraction such as straddling a meter. The first offense every year gets a courtesy ticket, a change to make downtown more friendly, but equates to roughly $60,000 in lost annual revenue for the parking program.

Q: Why does parking need to generate more revenue?

A: The parking program has roughly $800,000 in immediate maintenance needs to include converting to energy-efficient lighting in the two city garages; improving access gates in the garages for security. The parking program doesn’t have that much available cash.

Parking meters could return to 2nd Avenue South after yearlong test

Q: Why not reduce enforcement?

A: The city has over the years shrunk the parking enforcement area and removed meters in some underutilized areas. On 2nd Avenue South, there were complaints from business owners and the police department about junk and abandoned vehicles. Meters in that area have since been replaced. The city also ceased Saturday enforcement several years ago and elimitated the residential parking permit program and enforcement in the area from Central to Gibson Park.

Garage security a priority for city parking program

Q: Are there other funding options?

A: To a degree, yes. The staff proposal for the $800,000 in garage repairs and upgrades includes using $150,000 in tax increment financing; $150,000 from the parking reserves; and debt financing for the remainder. Raymond said hasn’t suggested raiding the entire downtown TIF fund, which has about $472,583.96, as of mid-November. Of that, $25,000 has been obligated for a downtown wayfinding project and the city just approved $5,000 to the Downtown Development Partnership for their operational costs. Other projects, including the redevelopment of the Rocky Mountain Building, will likely request TIF funds in the near future.

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

Patterson has suggested on many occasions that he supports a parking district, which would impose an additional assessment on property owners within the downtown parking district. He has also suggested that the city’s general fund support parking, but the City Commission and City Manager have been adamant in recent years that the general fund will not be used to subsidize parking since it’s already struggling to add additional police and fire staff; support the aquatics program and recoup roughly $1 million from the golf fund.

GFPD facing staffing shortage, temporarily dissolving BRIC officer, changing shift schedules

For some perspective, the city is projected to generate $19.5 million in taxes this year. The public safety budget in the adopted budget is $22.5 million: $13.5 million for GFPD and $8.9 million for GFFR.

Q: Who’s on the Parking Advisory Commission?

A: Mostly people with ties to the downtown. Currently, the PAC includes the director of the Downtown Great Falls Association, the community director of the Business Improvement District, the director of the Great Falls Homebuilders Association and two downtown business owners. There is currently a vacancy on the PAC and the city is seeking applicants. All PAC meetings are open to the public and they meet again this week, Dec. 20 at 3:30 p.m. in the Rainbow Room at the Civic Center.

Q: Why not sell a surface lot or garage?

A: The city’s surface lots cost about $46,000 to operate and bring in about $60,000 annually. Raymond said it doesn’t make sense to sell a surface lot right now as it’s a net gain for the system. The city does least a lot to the Great Falls Rescue Mission, but PAC members and city staff have been reluctant to sell surface lots since they’ll be needed as downtown continues to develop. The lot behind the Rocky Mountain Building has been underutilized for years and some have suggested selling it, but as that building is redeveloped, that lot will likely become high demand parking.

Community Health Care Center continuing split from county, move to Rocky Mountain Building

Selling a garage has been discussed, but it’s not particularly feasible at this point, according to city staff. Both garages would need significant improvements to be attractive to a buyer as a garage and if privatized, parking rates would likely increase significantly. It’s also a capacity the city doesn’t want to lose since downtown rejuvenation appears to be continuing on an upward trend.