Parking board votes to resume two-hour enforcement downtown

Now that restaurants, bars and shops are reopening downtown, discussions over parking enforcement are ramping up again.

In March, the city suspended enforcement of downtown parking to support the restaurants and bars that were shifting to takeout and curbside operations under the COVID-19 restrictions.

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

Around the same time, someone broke into the parking office and stole keys to the meters, as well as keys to a truck used by the city parking program.

It’s unlikely the suspects knew what they had with the meter key, but as a precaution, parking staff collected all the money from the meters, then removed the meter heads to prevent any additional issues.

March 19 COVID-19 updates: health officer orders restrictions on bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, etc.; city declaring sate of emergency; changes at city attorneys office, animal shelter and Municipal Court; downtown metered parking enforcement suspended; Lewis and Clark Trail Mixer postponed; GFCMSU changing access, operations

Staff has been exploring options for rekeying the meters but that’s also lead to a discussion of whether the city wants to reinstall the same old meters, replace them with new modern meters or no meters with a different enforcement model entirely.

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As businesses are reopening under the Phase 1 guidelines and preparing for Phase 2, downtown business owners have been complaining about people who are abusing the lack of enforcement and parking downtown all day.

During the May 21 Parking Advisory Commission meeting, several members and city staff said they had been fielding complaints from business owners about construction workers, downtown employees and residents parking in front of their shops or restaurants all day, taking up spaces for their customers.

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Kellie Pierce, a PAC member and director of the Downtown Great Falls Association, said “we absolutely need enforcement.”

What’s happening currently is “exactly what we said would happen if we took meters away,” Pierce said.

Pierce said the majority of downtown business owners had contacted her to complain about the parking situation.

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During the May 21 meeting, the PAC voted to resume enforcement of the two-hour limit, though downtown parking remains free for the time being.

The city is working on getting signs made and installed notifying people of the two hour limit and once those signs are up, enforcement can resume.

The group discussed ideas for whether the fine for violating the two-hour limit should change, but it’s unclear whether the city manager can change the fee structure under a state of emergency or whether they want to make that many changes at once during the pandemic situation.

The current fee and fine structure for downtown parking is set by the City Commission.

The financial situation of the parking fund is concerning to city staff since the city hasn’t been collecting meter revenue since mid-March and revenue for the garages and surface lots is also down.

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According to city documents, in April 2019, total meter revenue was $20,817 and in May 2019 it was $22,907.

In April 2020, meter revenue was $4,017 and for May 2020 so far, it’s $24.50 with $285 in outstanding payments for bagged meters.

“This is pretty sobering. It’s bad. It’s real bad,” said Craig Raymond, city planning director. “Obviously, we can’t sustain this for very long otherwise our reserve that we were going to be using for garage improvements is going to be gone.”

Raymond said because of that, he doesn’t want to wait too long to come up with a plan to replace the lost revenue from meters since it’s not a sustainable situation and puts a serious damper on the improvement schedule that was planned.

“It’s definitely kind of a call to action,” in coming up with some kind of solution, Raymond said, or an option would be to start cutting staff.

“I don’t see that as the solution, particularly if we want to do enforcement,” Raymond said.

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Jeff Patterson, a PAC member, said that “we want turnover” and the current fine structure for time violations won’t generate turnover since it’s not expensive enough.

The current fine structure for meter violations is one lifetime courtesy ticket, then for a subsequent offense is $5, then $10 then $20.

Patterson suggested changing the fee structure while the meters are missing to do free parking for two hours but then a $20 fine for exceeding the time limit, then additional tickets for each two hour chunk of continued violation. Staff is looking into whether the current enforcement technology can do that, but they believe they could do something similar to that.

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Craig Raymond, city planning director, said that staff’s recommendation to the city manager at this point is to leave the fine structure as it is since a change would require reprogramming all of their equipment and systems.

The city is also looking into options for license plate reading cameras to help with enforcement, which is what several other cities in Montana have shifted to but there were issues with reading the myriad of specialty Montana plates.