City approves parking meter increase for downtown Great Falls
Beginning July 1, parking meter rates in downtown Great Falls will increase to $1 per hour.
The City Commission voted 4-1 on Tuesday, with Commissioner Tracy Houck dissenting, to increase the meter rate; replace the annual courtesy ticket with one per lifetime of a license plate; and slightly revise the fines for time violations.
The new fine structure will be: 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.
The proposal was developed by the Parking Advisory Commission through a roughly two year effort to develop a strategic plan. The PAC is comprised of downtown business owners and representatives from downtown groups.
The parking program is not supported with tax dollars, with the exception of the recently approved tax increment financing request. The program is an enterprise fund and is funded entirely through meters, permits, citations and other associated parking fees.
Last fall, the PAC proposed increasing the rates from 50 cents per hour to $2, a proposal that met swift and strong criticism.
The proposal did bring a number of downtown business owners to the PAC meetings and a December meeting organized by downtown business owners to discuss the challenges in the parking system as the PAC revised its proposal.
During the May 21 commission meeting, several downtown business owners spoke in opposition to the meter rate increase, expressing concern that it would deter people from coming downtown to shop, drink and eat.
The parking system has about $800,000 in deferred maintenance that city staff has deemed immediate needs for repairs and upgrades. Those projects are over and above the program’s current budget.
The commission approved $450,000 in downtown tax increment financing funds to use for the repairs and upgrades and staff is planning to use about $400,000 in reserves to funds those projects and avoid taking on debt.
Some business owners argued that meant that the meter increase wasn’t necessary, but there are more significant maintenance and technology upgrade items coming in the near future, such as new meters, entry control gates for surface lots and signage. Staff and the PAC have argued that the system needs to generate additional revenue to backfill the reserve funds that will be depleted with the current projects and to start budgeting $100,000 annually for maintenance to avoid getting into a similar hole of deferred maintenance in the future.
The city parking budget for the current fiscal year includes $540,000 of projected revenue and $641,220 worth of expenses.
So far this year, revenues have been $503,353 and expenses were $426,505 as of May 10.
That puts the program about $76,000 in the black, but Raymond cautioned the PAC last week into getting too excited about that since several bills haven’t come out yet, such as the internal service charges. The fee to Standard Parking in this year’s budget is $412,700. That contract includes enforcement, management of the garages, snow removal for service and basic maintenance. Over the years, the city has worked with Standard to have the contractor take on more maintenance tasks. The contract expires in December.
Craig Raymond, city planning director, told commissioners that it had been frustrating over the years to lack funds to do the needed maintenance and “we would like to stop that right now.”
The city has completed the lighting upgrades in both parking garages as a first major step to improve safety and security, with the assumption that will increase usage in those facilities. The new lighting is also projected to save the city about $17,000 annually in energy costs.
The other planned projects include upgrading entry/exit gates at the garages and pay stations to allow for better management and flexibility for short term parkers there.
Commissioner Bill Bronson asked if the idea of creating a parking district had been rejected. Raymond said it had not, but that the process was complicated and labor intensive.
In February, Assistant City Attorney Joe Cik provided a 16-page memo to the PAC and discussed the options for parking districts with the group.
Some PAC members have suggested established a city-wide tax to support the parking system. Some have considered a downtown parking district that would add a tax to the property owners within that boundary to support parking.
PAC Chair Jeff Patterson at one point suggested creating an assessment that would generate $100,000 annually.
Cik advised the PAC that while those options are possible, they require significant staff work, detailed plans and involve lengthy processes.
In his February memo, Cik wrote, “the establishment and operation of an improvement district, such as the one proposed, is a complicated matter. In order for legal establishment and operation, it is highly advised that the Parking Advisory Commission consider developing a very detailed master plan for the district. The master plan should include specific projects that would be addressed, an equitable assessment method, and a clear vision as to what the district aims to accomplish. City staff has experience with the establishment of special districts.
Bronson also asked if a graduated increase had been considered.
Raymond said they’ve been using that approach with limited success.
Some business owners suggested charging for parking after 5 p.m.
The PAC has discussed after hours enforcement but have generally agreed that option needs further review since there would be added operational costs.
“I think we’d have to ask ourselves what’s the purpose of doing that,” Raymond told commissioners.
Raymond told commissioners that the additional revenues would also go toward meter replacement in the future. Staff and PAC members have been discussing upgrading meters for years to modern versions such as those that accept credit and debit cards, interface with smartphone apps and the pay stations that cover multiple spots.
Alison Fried of Dragonfly Dry Goods asked commissioners to deny the increase and instead work on a longer term plan for parking.
She said the dynamic is changing downtown.
Gary Hackett owns multiple buildings downtown and said signage was lacking and that’s “a huge problem.”
He said there’s a misconception that there’s a lack of parking downtown, but people always want to park right in front of the business they’re visiting. He said downtown is improving, more buildings are being developed and garage usage would increase over time.
Kandy Zanto of Feather Your Nest said there’s a perception issue related to parking and that downtown residents fill many parking spots overnight now.
“If we did not have parking meters, it’s my opinion that I wouldn’t have a business because residents would park there all day,” she said. “We really do need the meters.”
Zanto said maybe there should be after hours enforcement to capture those who are eating and drinking in the evenings.
She thanks the people “who are trying to solve the problem,” but said the increase will put a burden on downtown businesses.
Brian Kauffman of Kauffman’s said the downtown was a ghost town after 5 p.m. five years ago, but now it’s more vibrant.
He said the upgraded lights in the garages are “awesome.”
Kauffman suggested that the city increase marketing of the parking program since “people do not know how to park in downtown.”
Houck moved to increase the meter rate to 75 cents and to change the times of enforcement from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
No one seconded that motion and it died.
Commissioner Owen Robinson said he was reluctant to change the PAC’s recommendation but that further consideration of the 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. would be nice.
“The fact is the dollar is needed,” he said.
Going to the 75 cents rate “would just compound the problem,” Robinson said.
Commissioner Mary Moe said she would be reluctant to change the enforcement times without more public notice
She said the commission in 2014 didn’t accept the staff proposals to adjust the meter rate and other aspects of the parking program and that’s why they were still in the hole. She said the deterioration of the garages impacts all of downtown.
Moe said she was concerned about draining the reserves since “we’re one major hiccup away from not being able to respond.
Bronson warned that the city couldn’t rely on TIF funds for the parking program and echoed the other commissioners in encouraging staff and the PAC to look at different enforcement hours and wayfinding.
But he didn’t want to delay the action in favor of doing another study.
“I don’t see what some other plan is going to do that’s any different” from what’s been proposed, he said.