City considering license plate recognition, pay stations for downtown parking enforcement

The city is looking at options for license plate reader technology and pay stations to replace the parking meters downtown.

The city resumed enforcement of the two-hour time limit June 22 but the meters have not been re-installed. In March, someone broke into the parking office in the north garage and stole a pickup truck and keys, which included the keys to the meter, meaning someone could have access to any coins deposited in the meters. The truck was recovered, but the meter key has not yet been found so to prevent theft or damage to the meters, the city removed the meter heads.

For the time being, downtown street parking is free, but the two-hour limit is being enforced and the normal fine structure is in place. Garage and surface lots regulations are unchanged.

Downtown parking enforcement resumes June 22

During the May 21 Parking Advisory Commission meeting, the group voted to restore enforcement of the two-hour time limit.

Members of the PAC and city staff said they had been fielding complains 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, as the downtown was reopening under Phase 1 and preparing for Phase 2.

The city explored options for rekeying the meters, but found none and the estimated cost to replace the shells of the meters is $125,000, according to city staff.

During the COVID-19 shutdown, the city suspended parking enforcement to support downtown businesses that were transitioning to curbside and take out operations, but that put a significant dent in the parking fund’s budget.

Parking board votes to resume two-hour enforcement downtown

The city parking system does not typically receive general fund support or tax subsidies. It’s an enterprise fund meaning its operations are funded by the fees and fines for parking. Last year, City Commissioners approved the use of $450,000 from the downtown tax increment financing fund toward repairs to the two parking garages and staff planned to use reserve funds toward the project to avoid taking on debt.

But, COVID-19 is upending that plan.

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

“Our reserves are going to be gone in a pretty short period of time,” Craig Raymond, city planning director, said in a June 18 PAC meeting.

Raymond told the PAC that his recommendation was to decide on a direction for parking enforcement as quickly as possible since meter revenue accounts for about 60 percent of the system’s total revenue.

City considering 1-year contract extension for parking contractor as it considers long-term lease option

Switching to LPR would lower the city’s personnel costs for parking enforcement, according to the city’s parking contractors, SP+ and Passport Parking.

Staff is still considering options for how to structure personnel with LPR since there’s only one full-time manager now and enforcement officers are part-timers. The contractors suggested having two full-time enforcement officers so one could drive the vehicle and and run the LPR then ping violations to the person on foot to write tickets.

According to the city’s contractors, the switch to LPR could save the city up to $44,769 in the first year and $83,859 in subsequent years.

City approves parking meter increase for downtown Great Falls

Joan Redeen, of the Downtown Business Improvement District and a PAC member, said that it’s a great idea that they’ve been talking about for awhile, but asked how they’d pay for it.

Raymond said they’d likely have to reprioritize facility improvements. Most of the TIF money was spent on the garage lighting project, but security cameras and other repairs haven’t been completed yet.

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

Katie Hanning, a PAC member, said she liked the LPR option and pay stations, but worried about having the cash slot on them since they frequently get jammed. She said she also liked the digital permitting option available with the LPR technology.

The pay stations have the option for credit card only or machines that also accept coins and/or cash. Some cities have gone to mobile only payment systems, but PAC members didn’t think that would be well received in Great Falls.

The city already uses the Passport Parking mobile app for metered parking and has been looking at using more options from that platform including digital permitting, which eliminates the need for physical hang tags; allowing customers to apply, renew and pay for permits online; as well as managing daily tasks in one back office system.

Bozeman uses LPR for parking enforcement, as does Missoula for residential permit enforcement. Missoula switched to digital pay stations several years ago in the downtown area.