$2 meter rate hike proposal is dead, parking board recommending more modest increase

The proposal to raise parking meter rates in downtown Great Falls last fall was essentially dead on arrival and the Parking Advisory Commission voted Thursday afternoon to make a more modest increase.

They’re planning to take that proposal to a City Commission work session in April, meaning it will be at least May before the commission would take any action on the new proposal. If the commission approved the changes, the PAC is hoping to implement the new meter rates and fines beginning July 1.
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For months the PAC has struggled to reach consensus on a strategy for generating revenue to address budget shortfalls and plan for future maintenance.

On Thursday, they voted to recommend increasing meters to $1 per hour throughout the downtown, make courtesy tickets once per lifetime of a license plate and slightly modify the graduated fine structure for time violations to a $5 ticket for the first offense after the courtesy ticket, $10 for the second subsequent offense and $20 for every subsequent time violation. The number of offenses per license plate resets every January.
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In January, the Downtown Development Partnership approved an application from the city to use $470,000 of tax increment financing funds for garage repairs and improvements.

The application still needs City Commission approval and the request will likely be on the agenda for the March 19 meeting.

The TIF funding, coupled with $400,000 of reserve funds, will be used to fund the $861,000 worth of immediate needs for the city’s two parking garages, including lighting improvements, surveillance system installation, repairs and more.
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During the Feb. 19 meeting, City Commissioners approved a $264,891 contract with McKinstry for a LED lighting retrofit of both city parking garages.

The lighting was one of several energy savings projects identified in McKinstry’s energy performance audit, under a contract the commission approved in August 2017.

The new LED lighting will have occupancy sensors and dim when no activity is present in the garages. The new lighting is estimated to save the city $17,000 annually in energy costs.
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The project is being funded by parking reserve funds.

The current priorities as proposed by the city are:

  • $265,000 for LED lighting retrofit to both parking garages
  • $67,000 for surveillance system installation
  • $10,000 for gate and revenue control system installation
  • $74,000 for revenue control system equipment
  • $8,000 for entrance gates
  • $417,000 for repairs and maintenance
  • $20,000 for architectural/engineering costs

The downtown TIF district was renewed in 2012 and the funds from improvements to properties within the district are set aside to be used within the district to fund public improvements.

That plan will provide funding to cover the immediate maintenance and repair needs in the parking garages, but it won’t cover the $100,000 deficit in this year’s budget nor will it allow staff to budget for continued maintenance, something the city is often criticized for failing to include.
Parking discussions have been similar for years, some action might be taken this fall

Raymond is recommending that going forward, the parking program budget $100,000 annually for regular maintenance to avoid finding themselves in the nearly $1 million maintenance hole they’re currently in. To do that, the program needs to generate about $200,000 in additional revenue, which will likely come from meter, garage and fine increases.
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The initial parking proposal was to incur debt to pay for those improvements and then raise meter rates and fines to generate enough revenue to make debt payments. The PAC recommended raising meter rates on Central Avenue to $2 per hour; feeder streets and the courthouse area to $1.50 per hour and all other meters to $1 per hour. Garage and surface lot rates weren’t included in the rate increases since they were adjusted in 2017.
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The backlash to that meter rate proposal was swift and strong.

Craig Raymond, city planning director, had initially recommended using $150,000 from the reserves and $150,000 from the downtown TIF fund to help cover the cost, but the city manager’s office encouraged Raymond to take a more aggressive approach and now, staff has proposed using $470,000 in TIF funds and $400,000 to cover the improvements instead of taking on debt.
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But, that just about empties the parking reserves leaving little wiggle room should an elevator breakdown or any other unanticipated catastrophic failures happen within the parking program.

About $100,000 will be left in the TIF fund for other projects until the next round of taxes come in.

That initial proposal went to a City Commission work session in December but staff has said the $2 per hour rate hike will not formally be sent to the commission since it’s unrealistic.
Increased parking fees proposed for downtown Great Falls

The PAC also voted in November on a backup recommendation that also doesn’t appear to be moving forward. That proposal was to increase meters to $1.25 per hour throughout the meter district, implement a $20 fine for time violations and reduce the courtesy ticket to a one per lifetime of a license plate option.

In late January, the PAC met to again discuss possible revenue generating options since their October recommendation of quadrupling rates was predictably unpopular.
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Some options discussed in January include increasing meter rates throughout the parking district to either 75 cents or $1 per hour. Staff is recommending an increase to time violations though some like the current graduated system of a courtesy ticket, then $5, $10, $15 and $20 for subsequent violations.

They made no real recommendations in January and during their Feb. 21 meeting, forgot about their November vote and spent time discussing the $20 citation for time violations.

Jeff Patterson, PAC member and downtown business owner, said during the Jan. 17 meeting that he wants to explore the option of a parking assessment, which would be an additional tax on property owners within the parking district for funding the parking program specifically.

“It seems fair to me that property owners share in the cost,” Patterson said.

Patterson suggested creating the district to generate about $100,000 in revenue for parking, but staff cautioned that creating the special assessment districts is labor intensive for staff and that they’ll need to account for internal service charges.

Some other downtown property owners said during the January meeting that they might prefer a fixed annual cost related to parking versus changing dynamics with metered parking. City staffers are looking into the requirements for creating the district under state law and also the associated costs with managing another special assessment to determine if it’s a worthwhile strategy for parking revenues.

The PAC has not voted or formally made a proposal regarding the parking district assessment.

Assistant City Attorney Joe Cik wrote a 16-page memo outlining the process and requirements for a parking improvement district and told the PAC that considerably more discussion needed to happen before could really start the process since under the law the resolution to create such a district needed to clearly delineate the district boundaries, how the assessment would be collected and what the district would do.

Much like the park district assessment, it would likely take years to get a parking improvement district approved, Cik said.

Patterson said again during the Feb. 21 meeting that he wants to further research the issue.

During a recent City Commission work session, City Manager Greg Doyon said that once some of the major proposals come to the commission for consideration, he’s going to pull Raymond back from parking a bit since there are other more pressing issues in the planning department, including a massive review of the city’s land development code.

Doyon has said multiple times over the last year or so that once the PAC completes their strategic plan process, that he’ll be directing Raymond to focus energy elsewhere. City Commissioners have given little public direction in regards to whether they consider downtown parking a priority.

When Bob Kelly was elected mayor, he directed the PAC to develop a framework for solutions but there’s been little change in the discussion since then and most of the proposals for change came directly from staff. The PAC’s strategic plan process was supposed to take five months but it’s been 17 months and the plan is still incomplete.

The proposed upgrades also offer some cost savings over time. For example, city staff estimates about $17,000 in energy costs annually and the PAC anticipates greater usage in the garages if safety and security is improved.

Selling a lot has been discussed as an option for generating revenue and reducing the parking program’s footprint, but the numbers don’t currently support that action since the approximate cost to the city to maintain all of the surface lots has been $46,000 while revenue has been $60,000 annually for the last few years. So the surface lots are currently generating revenue for the parking program.

The city is also looking at switching software programs since they’ve been having issues with the current system from T2 and right now, fine collections are low because the software isn’t interfacing well with the state system to identify licence plates properly to get contact information for the vehicle owners to be able to issue a citation.