Parking meter heads removed due to break-in at city parking office; theft of meter keys

Updated: April 1 9:30 a.m. to correct the monthly revenue figure.

Parking meter heads have vanished from the downtown area, but it’s not because of COVID-19.

In this case, it’s theft.

Around 5 a.m. March 23, someone broke into the North Garage office and one of the items stolen was keys for the on-street parking meters, according to Craig Raymond, city planning director.

That meant whoever had the keys would have access to the meters and the money inside. The suspects apparently came back and stole a truck from the parking office, but has since been recovered, Raymond said.

According to the Great Falls Police Department, the truck was reported stolen at 7:03 a.m. March 24 and was located at the Super 8 with damage to the vehicle.

No suspects are known at this time and the meter keys have not yet been recovered, GFPD told The Electric on April 1. City staff and investigators are working to get video footage, according to GFPD.

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Parking staff immediately collected money from all the roughly 1,000 meters in the downtown parking district.

Next, parking staff removed all of the meter heads and placed them in storage, Raymond said.

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The city ceased parking meter enforcement, effective March 19, due to the COVID-19 outbreak so for the time being, the meter heads will remain in storage.

So far, the meter keys have not all been recovered so unless they’re found, the city will have to determine whether to rekey the meter heads or replace them, neither option is cheap, Raymond said.

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He said parking staff is looking at options to rekey the existing meters, which are old and getting harder to find parts or replacements for, but if that gets too costly, the city will have to look at buying new meters.

Raymond said if it comes to that, it starts the conversation again about using newer technology for meters or pay stations or other parking management options.

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If all of the meter keys are recovered in the meantime, the issue is moot, and the meter heads will replaced and parking operations will return to normal.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted operations for restaurants and bars and forced the closure of many retail stores, downtown has been quiet.

In an effort to support those downtown restaurants that have shifted to take out operations, the city suspended enforcement of metered parking during the COVID-19 pandemic, effective March 19.

The city isn’t enforcing meters or the two hour time limit but is continuing to enforce rules for handicapped parking and areas around fire hydrants.

Raymond said the city was projecting the parking fund to be about $1,000 in the red monthly, so for now, the lack of meter enforcement shouldn’t impact the budget too much, but if the pandemic related closures go on for an extended time, “we’re going to have to really look at things.”

The parking fund is an enterprise fund of the city budget, meaning it receives no general fund support and the program is self-funded through parking fees and permits, and parking fines.

Total meter revenue for January 2020 was $25,558.99.

The average monthly revenue from parking citations is $2,212.

The total parking revenue from January 2020 was $62,791.99. Parking revenues minus meter and citation revenue for January was $35,020.88, according to a memo Raymond sent to the city manager in mid-March.

The monthly management/enforcement cost for the parking program is $36,093.11.