City approves purchase of new parking meters, LPR technology and associated fees
City Commissioners voted this week to approve the purchase of 16 multi-space pay stations.
Commissioners also voted to approve fees associated with the new equipment and software.
This year, the city has been moving toward the installation of multi-space electronic pay stations on Central Avenue; license plate recognition equipment and software; as well as parking enforcement and back-end software.
Fourteen of the new multi-space pay stations will be installed along Central Avenue and two will go in the parking garages.
The Parking Advisory Commission had discussed the possibility of switching to modern meters for years, but after a March break-in at the parking office in the North Parking Garage, the conversation picked up steam. During the break-in, a meter key went missing, which gave access to all of the city’s parking meters and the money inside of them.
The key was later recovered by a maintenance worker checking the elevator mechanical room.
Since the city wasn’t able to rekey the meters, staff worked on alternate plans to replace the meters with newer, modern pay stations and use license plate reader technology for parking enforcement.
In June, the Parking Advisory Commission voted to recommend that plan. The new technology comes with an upfront cost, but also an estimated cost savings over time, according to city staff.
Craig Raymond, city planning director, said the upfront cost of the new equipment in year one is about $170,500.
The multi-space pay stations will be coupled with license plate reader technology and equipment. With LPR, “cameras are mounted to a vehicle and connected to a computer inside the vehicle. The system continually scans vehicle license plates, communicates with the multi-space pay stations and the mobile payment app., and will alert the driver when a vehicle has either not paid, their session has expired, or they have stayed in the same spot for over 2-hours. Once the driver receives the alert, they may stop the vehicle to write and print a citation. The significant advantage of adopting LPR technology is the speed, efficiency, and accuracy of covering the downtown parking enforcement district compared to patrolling on foot,” according to the city staff report.
The city will also have to write and adopt a LPR operations and policy manual, as required by state law, that specifies how the technology is to be used and what limitations will strictly be adhered to when LPR is being used.
“Some communities across the United States have chosen to utilize LPR to assist in the identification and reporting to authorities of stolen vehicles. In some cases, as the enforcement vehicle would roll along, the cameras would read a license plate that would have been reported as a stolen vehicle and law enforcement would be notified. In Great Falls, this practice will not be permitted and a policy manual will be written to discourage any such unauthorized use of the capabilities that exist with LPR technology,” according to the staff report.
The new parking related fees will pass some of the additional costs onto those who use the parking system, versus absorbing those costs into the parking fund, which has dwindling reserves, mostly due to COVID.
Raymond said in October that the parking system’s reserve fund was about $493,000 in March but now it’s about $350,000. He said that typically, the program brings in $25,000 to $35,000 monthly from meter revenue, but the city hasn’t been charging for metered parking since March.
The parking fund is an enterprise fund, meaning the parking program is supported by fees and fines for parking, not tax dollars from the city general fund.
The city has selected Passport Parking, which already serves as the city’s contractor for the mobile parking app, to handle those software aspects and the company uses a cost recovery structure the puts certain costs and fees on those users that use elements of the software versus spreading the entire cost equally across all users, according to the city.
For example, the users who receive parking citations are assessed a $3 citation management platform fee, on top of their normal timed parking violation fine of $5, $10, $20 or $100.
Those who are cited and don’t pay the fine and fee within 30 days will be assessed a 25 percent fee above the total amount, according to the staff report.
Additional fees will accumulate based on costs associated with letters and invoices sent and other collections efforts or the appeal process, according to the city staff report.
The proposal also includes a monthly $2.50 fee for those who purchase monthly parking passes for the garages or surface lots.
The transaction fee for mobile payments for parking will be increased by 10 cents from a quarter to 35 cents.
The city has been looking at transitioning to the new pay stations and digital methods for parking enforcement after a series of events in the spring.
The city also has the Passport Parking smartphone app that allows people to pay for parking from their mobile phones. Raymond said usage has increased for the app, but the city is continuing to work on raising awareness of that option.
The city parking program has long struggled and in recent years made adjustment to the fees and fine structures to generate more revenue for needed repairs at the city’s two public garages. Discussion of replacing the older meters with newer technologies has been ongoing for years, but the events of early 2020 demonstrated that “certain failures are catastrophic to the health of the program fund balance and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances,” according to city staff.
The suspension of most parking enforcement during the stay-home order and lack of parking enforcement caused a substantial decrease in the fund balance for the parking program since March. City staff is recommending the establishment of these user fees “so that traditional revenue streams can continue to be committed to operations and facility maintenance and improvements as we continue to recover from the economic consequence of suspending certain activities and fees while supporting the downtown businesses during the COVID pandemic,” according to the staff report.
The city ceased parking meter enforcement, effective March 19, due to the COVID-19 outbreak and resumed enforcement of the two-hour time limit June 22 but the meters have not been re-installed, meaning it’s free to park downtown currently, but the two-hour time limit is being enforced.
Most of the user fees will pass through to Passport Parking but 10 cents of each 35 cent mobile payment for parking fee will remain with the city to help cover associated costs associated with merchant service fees and credit card transactions that the city will incur for offering the convenient payment options to customers, according to city staff.