Increased parking meter fee on Tuesday’s commission agenda

Faced with year’s of deferred maintenance that the parking program hasn’t been able to afford, the Parking Advisory Commission has recommended several changes that the City Commission will consider Tuesday night.

Last fall’s proposal to quadruple meter rates on Central Avenue was essentially dead in the water and the PAC has since revised the proposal.

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

During their May 21, the City Commission will consider the PAC’s current proposal to increase the rate at all meters from 50 cents to $1 per hour; eliminate the annual courtesy ticket and replace it with a once per license plate lifetime courtesy ticket; and revise the graduated fine schedule for time violations to the one time courtesy ticket, $5 for the second violation, $10 for the third violation and $20 for the fourth and each subsequent violation in any given calendar year.

Time violations are those cited for parking in excess of the two-hour limit at each space and/or parking in excess of the amount of time purchased at a meter.

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

The parking program is facing an estimated $800,000 in immediate repair and improvement needs for the city’s two parking garages, including new lighting, surveillance system, garage entry controls, and general maintenance to repair door frames that are preventing doors from closing properly, water leaking into electrical boxes and other areas, crack sealing and more.

Those $800,000 worth of repairs are in addition to the parking program’s general operating budget, which is projected to end the year $100,000 in the red.

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

To fund those repairs, staff has received approval from the commission to use $470,000 from the Downtown Tax Increment Financing District and about $400,000 in reserves.

The TIF funding for garage improvements was also approved by the Downtown Development Partnership, which includes members from the Business Improvement District, the Downtown Great Falls Association, Great Falls Development Authority, NeighborWorks Great Falls, downtown business owners, residents and others.

The PAC’s proposal is estimated to generate an additional $260,000 annually based on current parking activity, citations and collection rates.

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

The lighting upgrades to LED are just about complete in both garages, generating positive feedback from those who use the garages and others downtown. The city made some adjustments to the light levels since some neighbors complained about the significantly brighter light. The lighting is expected to improve safety and perceptions of the garages, increasing usage, and lowering energy costs by an estimated $17,000 annually.

Craig Raymond, city planning director, said he hasn’t contracted for other projects yet since he doesn’t want to deplete available funding without knowing additional revenue would be coming in to replace it through the rate increase.

City staff and the PAC are also recommending the rate increase and citation changes in order to budget about $100,000 annually for maintenance so that the parking program doesn’t end up with another hefty deferred maintenance price tag in the near future.

“We want to be proactive and budget long-term for maintenance,” Raymond told commissioners during their May 7 meeting.

City revising section of code dealing with vehicles and traffic

For years, the commission and city manager’s office have said general fund support is off the table since those funds are already limited and needed to support police and fire, among other city services.

When Asurion left downtown, the parking program took a major hit, but over recent years, that loss is slowly being replaced by new companies including the FCR call center and other business that have moved into downtown. Usage of the Passport Parking app has also increased, but is still hovering around 5 percent.

The Parking Advisory Commission is made up of downtown business owners, a representative of the Downtown Great Falls Association, an ex-officio member representing the Business Improvement District and others.

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

While the PAC has developed its proposal that goes before the City Commission on Tuesday, some downtown business owners and property owners have expressed opposition to the increased meter rates, while some have said they understand the need for the increases to fund repairs.

The conversation regarding the city’s parking program is not new.

According to parking board minutes from 1979, the board discussed handicapped zones, employee abuse of parking and alley parking, residential parking areas with one and two hour zones; discussion to increase emphasis on enforcement of parking ticket payment; discussed forming a parking district; city discontinued use of courtesy tickets and there was discussion on lowering parking lot rates.

Garage security a priority for city parking program

In August 1979, the PAC discussed “the powerlessness of the parking commission. Discussion courtesy tickets, free parking on Saturdays, employee parking,” according to the minutes.

In 1980, the PAC discussed private management of city-owned off street parking facilities and the possibility of raising rates for on- and off-street parking; residential parking program considered; discussion on rates for garages, surface lots, parking facility hours, validation system and management of the parking program.

Parking board continues strategic planning effort

Fast forward to recent years and the conversation that’s happening now is largely unchanged from the one that happened in 2014 when staff recommended a four-year phased plan to increase revenue that would have increased meter rates to $1 in 2018, increased garage and surface lot rates and adjusted the fine structure.

In December 2014, the City Commission approved some minor changes, but denied most of the significant revenue generating recommendations from the PAC, staff and downtown community at the time. Commissioners instead adopted the fine structure currently in place, which lowered the revenue for the parking program from staff’s proposal at the time.

In 2015, the deputy planning director at the time issued a memo to city staff and commissioners titled “parking distress” and reiterated that the program needed adjustment to generate additional revenue to account for deferred maintenance and the loss of Asurion.

The City Commission took no action.

Increased parking fees proposed for downtown Great Falls

In 2017, the commission adopted increases to the monthly lease rate at the garages from $41 to $51. The north garage has hourly parking and that rate was not adjusted and remains 50 cents hourly, capped at $5 per day.

The commission also approved an increase in the monthly rate for surface parking from $30 to $35.

In summer 2017, the commission also approved additional funding for the city’s parking contractor, Standard Parking, to develop a strategic framework and financial plan. That process was supposed to take five months. It’s still not complete but the draft is similar to past studies that were done in 2010, 2013 and 2016.

The 2010 Standard Parking review of the city’s parking system recommended increasing meters to $1 per hour in the high demand core. The review also included discussions on removing meters in favor of time limit enforcement, but the parking company cautioned the city on the unintended consequences such as lower garage usage; lower vehicle turnover; more citations would be issued, causing more complaints and frustration; loss of revenue to support garage maintenance; and some studies indicated that when a downtown employee occupied a parking spot most of the day, adjacent businesses lost about $300 daily.

The 2016 study also recommended increasing meter rates to $1 per hour in the high demand Central Avenue core, as well as investing in new meter technology.

Missoula and Helena have upgraded their meters to pay stations that cover several spaces each. Those upgrades allow for greater flexibility in rates and zones for parking, but are costly upfront investments.

Missoula began installing their new meters in 2015, a roughly $1.4 million project.

In Missoula, most garages and on street rates are $1 per hour, though some areas offer the first hour free. Monthly rates for garages start at $75 monthly. On-street meters start at $1 per hour and increase by 50 cents for every additional hour after the two-hour mark. Missoula also uses the Passport Parking smartphone app that’s available in Great Falls.

Helena’s new meters are being installed this summer. They’ll integrate with a smartphone app, accept credit/debit cards and also continue accepting coins, according to the City of Helena.

Helena’s garage rates start at $63 per month and surface lots start at $53. Time violations carry a $25 fine.

Billings parking garages monthly rates start at $267.50 rate for the roof, $55 for covered spaces and $115 for assigned spaces. Some garages have no hourly parking, but most offer the first hour free, then increasing by a dollar each hour thereafter for a daily maximum charge of $7. Most parking meters are 75 cents an hour, though some 10-hour meters are cheaper and some meters are $1.50 hourly and half the proceeds go to the Downtown Billings Alliance for beautification efforts.

Bozeman is currently spending about $500,000 on upgrading to license reader technology to assist in parking enforcement. That funding is coming from the tax increment financing district, money that would go into the city’s general fund if the district wasn’t in place.

Another $500,000 from the TIF is being used for surface lot improvements. TIF funds have also been paying the debt service on the downtown parking garage since 2009, according to Bozeman’s parking manager Ed Meece. The garage was a $12 million project. Meece said about $4 million came from the federal government for a multimodal transportation center, the remainder was bonded, Meece said.

A 2016 study in Bozeman included a recommendation to consider switching on-street parking to paid parking, but Meece said they were working through other options first such as adjusting surface lots, other parking permit district, and more.

Parking in downtown Bozeman is largely free for two-hours, but the time violation carries a $20 fine.

The city has made a number of changes in an effort to reduce costs, such as ending Saturday enforcement and residential enforcement; removing meters in some underutilized areas; and working with the city’s parking contractor, Standard Parking to reduce duplicate costs.

During the May 7 City Commission meeting, Raymond said the program “runs pretty lean” and there isn’t a lot of excess to cut without suffering in operations, which often causes reduction in revenue.

Deb Sherrer said during that meeting she thought the library would be a great place to have free parking. The library lot has the same rates as on street parking and those funds are split between the parking program and the library.

Meters were last raised in 2008 when the rate went from a quarter to 50 cents per hour. When the meters were installed in 1947, the rate was 5 cents per hour, which if adjusted for inflation to today’s dollars is equivalent to 56 cents, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s inflation calculator.

The City Commission passed an ordinance in September 1947 to install meters downtown and in the 1949 general election, Great Falls voters supported keeping meters after an 18-month test run. The 1947 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.