When county officials made major moves to fix Butte’s antiquated and ailing parking department in 2014, they hoped to reverse years of operating deficits, too.
They hired a new director with backgrounds in business and management and gave her a year to turn things around.
At that person’s urging, commissioners spent more than $40,000 on new computer programs and hand-held devices to issue and track tickets and get more people to pay their fines.
The board that oversees parking increased fines for 18 violations, including the common offense of parking too long in those free two-hour zones Uptown.
New protocols were put in place, including guidelines about waiving tickets. For years, a board member said in late 2013, making a ticket disappear was seemingly a case of just talking to this person or that.
All those changes were made in 2014, and three full years later, some things have improved. Officials say the computerized ticketing system works great, for example, and collection rates on fines have shot up.
But the department, a group of three when fully staffed, is still very much in the red.
Its deficit – how much department payroll and other expenses exceed revenues from fines, parking permits and other sources – has topped $37,000 in each of the past three fiscal years. It hit $52,240 two years ago.
A sizable deficit is expected in the budget year that began July 1, so to cover it, officials penciled in a $25,000 transfer from the Uptown taxing district and $15,000 from the general fund – the county’s primary checking account.
To be fair, there were no guarantees the big changes in 2014 would make the department – also called the parking commission - self-sustaining.
Rob Dwyer, who has been on the parking board a dozen years under three separate chief executives, had his doubts then and isn’t surprised about the lingering shortfalls now.
“For some reason the parking commission has always been viewed as a self-sustaining entity, but it’s sort of a false premise,” said Dwyer, who has chaired the five-member board the past six years.
“Over the course of the years, almost every reasonable source of steady revenue has been removed, the most significant being the meters because back then, you paid from the first minute you parked,” he said.
Still, there were high hopes among county officials and commissioners that all the changes would make a big difference to the bottom line. They simply haven’t.
So what should be done?
Chief Executive Dave Palmer, Budget Director Danette Gleason and Community Development Director Karen Byrnes have been looking at several options of late. One is to simply accept it as a service requiring taxpayer funding, but there are other options on the table.
“We don’t think there is going to be one way to solve it,” Gleason said. “It is going to be a combination of things.”
They do agree on one thing: The status quo isn’t cutting it.
HOW WE GOT HERE
The shortfalls go back to at least 2000, when the department was about $10,500 in the hole, according to figures from the Finance and Budget Department.
There have been surpluses three times since then but they were short-lived and at least one – in 2008/2009 – occurred only because of a big infusion of tax dollars.
The department for years has relied on “implicit loans” from other funding streams and accounts to keep going. But the collective deficit over the past 17 years is $466,185.
There are plenty of reasons behind that, officials say.
Dwyer points first to parking commission’s longstanding, primary mission – encouraging commerce in Uptown Butte and its commercial district.
The vast majority of patrolling and ticketing is done Uptown -- not to make money but to keep vehicles moving along so there are spaces for parking and visiting stores, restaurants and other businesses.
Without rules or enforcement, officials say, people would park wherever they wanted for as long they wanted. All day in some cases, days at a time in others, shops and businesses be damned.
In the early 1980s, when the economy took a blow from sagging mine operations, the county stopped using most parking meters. That erased a giant slice of revenues.
Meters are a big deal in many cities and they used to be here, as well.
According to a county analysis, Missoula gets 48 percent of its $1.8 million parking enforcement budget today from meters. Helena gets 45 percent of its $1.6 million budget from meters.
Butte-Silver Bow’s last parking budget was $146,875, but the few meters left accounted for less than 1 percent of revenues. It got 33 percent of its self-generated money from fines and 46 percent from lot permits and leases. Actual expenses were $185,645, leaving a deficit of nearly $40,000.
Missoula and Helena get a lot of money from permits, too, but only 11 percent of Missoula’s money comes from fines and Helena gets only 5 percent from tickets.
Remember, Dwyer says, the department’s primary mission is to promote commerce by keeping Uptown traffic flowing.
“The way it is currently established, ideally, we would never make a dime because everybody would be following the rules. There would be no parking violations.”
Byrnes put it like this:
“If we are fully staffed and out there enforcing and doing our job, we are going to work our way out of a job because people will be more educated and they are going to follow the law,” she said.
The parking board raised fines – stagnant for years and a bargain in Montana - for almost all violations in 2014. The fine for overtime parking in a two-our zone went from $5 to $10.
But even three years ago, Dwyer and others were cautious about raising fines too high because that might anger people and discourage visits Uptown – which goes against the very thing they want to encourage.
In 2014 – the same year technology upgrades were made and fines were raised – a “special taxing district” that charged Uptown residents and businesses a fee for parking enforcement expired and was not renewed. In one swoop, more than $15,000 in revenue went away.
Officials cite other reasons for the deficits, including:
- The two-hour free zones. Great for motorists but they bring in nothing.
- Services that cost time and money but produce little or no revenue. There are several of those, but one of the biggest is patrolling neighborhoods around Montana Tech.
In many cities, residents next to college campuses pay fees for parking enforcement. They get tags to show their vehicles belong there, so students and others without them are ticketed and, in theory, are discouraged from clogging up neighborhood streets.
Residents near Tech get tags, too, but pay nothing for them even though county parking officers patrol the areas, sometimes two or three times a day. And those officers are fighting an uphill battle.
That’s because the county fine for parking illegally in those neighborhoods is $10. Tech charges $40 for similar violations on its campus.
“These students aren’t dumb,” Palmer said. “They park illegally off campus and get a $10 ticket versus a $40 ticket on campus.”
- Loss of lot-permit revenue. County officials are still thrilled with NorthWestern Energy’s decision to build a new Montana headquarters building Uptown. But it’s right where a 38-space lot used to bring in parking revenue.
- Frequent staff turnover. Byrnes now oversees the department, which has three enforcement officers. One – Butch Harrington – does some patrolling but also handles administrative duties. Two others do most of the patrolling.
It’s an entry-level job but it has always been viewed as a great stepping stone to other county positions that pay more. Several have left the department in recent years for just those positions.
“Our budget is almost fully tied to enforcement,” Byrnes said, so officer vacancies mean fewer tickets. Even when they are filled, it takes time to train the new person.
WHAT TO DO
The steps taken in 2014 are still viewed as very positive moves, including the hiring of Stephanie Marshall – the one with a business and managerial background – as parking director.
She inherited a department that had unreliable software, corrupt data and still issued hand-written tickets that were hard to track, among other problems.
Marshall left after 11 months to take a state job. But in her brief tenure, the department installed a new computer system that spits out tickets on the spot through hand-held electronic devices, tracks violations and links with a state database so it’s easier and faster to find vehicle owners who have been fined. Collection rates have gone from 37 percent in 2014 to 69 percent now.
The system continues to work well and the staff is great, Byrnes said, but even with all the changes, the current model will not get the department into the black.
Without more changes, she said, “We cannot collect enough revenue to cover costs."
The goal now, she and Palmer and Gleason say, is to close the gap between revenues and expenses as much as possible.
“We have to look at the long run and see if they can come out of the hole or the council has to decide whether it’s a service (that taxpayers fund),” Palmer said.
Some thought had been given to charging everyone in Butte-Silver Bow a fee to fund enforcement, since the department responds to complaints on the Flat, too, especially about trailers parked for days and weeks at a time.
But if fees are sought again, officials say they should probably be limited to Uptown and Tech neighborhoods since that is where most of the patrolling and enforcement takes place.
Palmer said county and Tech officials have been talking about ways to address the dilemma of campus neighborhoods. When the idea about charging for residential tags was pursued a few years ago, Tech officials objected because they didn’t want recent growth of the campus to adversely affect residents.
There is consensus on one thing: No major changes should be made until the new parking garage on Park Street is completed and opened, most likely in January.
The first month of parking in the garage will be free in hopes of getting people to try it out. Many of the spaces will then be leased on a monthly basis, mainly to NorthWestern Energy employees, and others will be charged hourly.
The plan is to have free parking from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on weekdays and free all weekends, too, but it will take time to determine how the garage and its 250 spaces affects Uptown parking as a whole.
Construction of the $7.4 million parking garage was funded through bonds backed by revenues from the Uptown tax-increment district. Money it makes is to go toward its maintenance and operations.
But if major changes to parking elsewhere are made now, Byrnes said, some people will perceive them as ways to pay for the big, new parking garage, even though it’s already paid for.
So the consensus for now is to keep the dialogue for changes alive but delay any actions until the garage has been operating for a while.
“Let’s get that going, let’s see how that rolls and let’s not throw a bunch of changes at the community now,” Byrnes said.
And whatever is done, Gleason says, the changes should be tailored to Butte.
"We don't want people to come into the community and have to pay for parking what they are paying in Seattle," she said. "There is a balancing that needs to take place."