GREAT FALLS – The Great Falls Parking Advisory Commission (PAC) recommended major rate increases for downtown parking Tuesday during a City Commission work session.
The recommendations would raise meter rates along Central Avenue from 50 cents per hour to $2 per hour. The rate for the first block of streets adjacent to Central Avenue would increase to $1.50 per hour and all metered parking would go up to $1 per hour.
Right now, the program has about $800,000 in maintenance work, which includes surveillance camera and security improvements, LED lighting upgrades, garage entrance and revenue controls, and deferred general maintenance on the south and north garages.
Several people expressed frustrations at the meeting, citing the potential impacts to business and property owners if rates are increased.
Gary Hackett owns three buildings downtown that provide for 11 small business owners and five employees and also include 31 apartments that represent 39 tenants.
He used an example of how the increased rates might affect a business that charges $3 for use of its recreational facility as well the $1 it currently costs to park downtown for two hours.
“Under the proposed two dollar increase, that would double the cost for that individual,” Hackett said. “I guarantee those people that would be coming to that are going to go somewhere else in town as a result of the increase.”
Alison Fried, owner of Dragonfly Dry Goods, told city officials that raising the meter rates would penalize the customers and business owners.
“If we’re going to take all the money from on-street parking and try to redo two buildings, we’re gonna put ourselves out of business,” she said.
Planning and Community Development Director Craig Raymond presented the commissioners with the PAC’s recommendations.
The budget is currently operating at a $100,000 deficit. Raymond said they’ve discussed decreasing the footprint in different ways and brainstormed a variety of ideas on how to solve the parking issue.
“Doing away with Saturday enforcement has been really popular,” he said. “We have not been getting any complaints from any of the merchants or anybody for that matter.”
Raymond said it was possible for the city to sell the surface lots to help decrease the debt, but it would only save them $46,000 annually. The surface lots currently bring in $60,000 a year, he added.
“It’s kind of net-positive for the program overall,” he said.
As far as operations adjustments, Raymond said there’s one full-time staff member and five part-time employees. He explained there’s certain things within the program that require several people to handle at one time such as collecting money.
The city anticipates saving roughly $17,000 annually if they replace current lighting with new energy efficient LED systems.
In addition to lighting, new camera and surveillance systems would act as a crime deterrent and aid in prosecution for criminal activity.
According to Raymond, vandalism and theft are the two most common problems in the parking garages and the current surveillance system is old and basic.
“Whenever we’ve provided footage to the Great Falls Police Department after we’ve had a vandalism or a theft situation, we give them the footage and it’s worthless because they can’t really make out license plate numbers. They can’t make out faces,” he said.
The City Commission only heard the PAC’s recommendations to help fund the projects and maintenance through increased rates on Tuesday. A decision concerning parking downtown is expected to be made at the beginning of next year.
The next PAC meeting is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on December 20 in the Rainbow Room of the Civic Center. City officials said all public input and suggestions are welcome.
On another note, parking downtown will be free from December 15 to December 25 although the two-hour maximum parking limit at meters will still be in effect.
-Reported by Joe Huisinga & Natalie McAlpine/MTN News