County officials say they have been working to address safety and health issues in the Uptown parking garage for some time but they’re now on a fast track and more measures are planned.
“The most important thing we want people to know is when they go into the parking garage and park day or night, they’re going to be safe and they’re not going to be hassled and they don’t run into feces and things like that,” Community Enrichment Director Ed Randall said Tuesday.
In a recent letter to commissioners, attorney James Dolan said human feces and urine, discarded needles, trash and sleeping or passed-out people had turned the parking garage on West Park Street into a hazardous health concern and “blight on the city.”
Dolan lives in Anaconda but works at the Public Defender’s Office just east of the garage and his letter stirred media attention and an acknowledgment by Chief Executive J.P. Gallagher that some “unsavory” things occur in the four-story structure.
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Gallagher said some steps were already in the works but he has met with several county department heads to discuss more possible measures.
"The big thing is the security of it and making people feel safe," Gallagher said Tuesday.
Randall and Sheriff Ed Lester detailed parts of a game plan to The Montana Standard on Tuesday, saying they wouldn’t eliminate all problems overnight but should make a difference. They include increased patrols from Randall’s and Lester’s departments.
“Our guys, detectives as well as patrol guys, will at least once a shift go through there, go all the way to the top and take a walk around,” Lester said, adding that anyone sleeping or doing other things besides parking will be told to leave.
The garage has some surveillance cameras but Randall said he and members of the Parking Commission had agreed a while back to install a new satellite camera system. The equipment has been purchased and installation is pending.
It will allow Randall, other staff and police to see what’s going on “in real time” so police can be dispatched immediately if needed, he said. Mirrors are also being added so people can see around corners.
Gallagher told commissioners last week that the Parks Department had used a power-washer with high-pressure steam to clean the garage, including stairwells, and Randall says more cleanings are planned.
The front of the garage will be steam-washed once a week, he said, and stairwells will be washed every two to three weeks. Public Works plans an extensive, two-day cleaning in the coming days, with the top two floors being done one day and the bottom floors the next.
There are plans to build an attendant station and staff it with a parking enforcement officer during the day, Randall said, and officials are likely to implement a new system for parking and paying.
Today, motorists can drive in and out of the garage at will and when parking hourly, they’re supposed to use kiosks inside to pay. Under the change, up-and-down gates will be installed and motorists will take a ticket to drive in and make payments to get out.
That won’t prevent people from walking in and misusing the garage, Randall said, but it will affect teenagers and others who drive in for purposes other than parking.
“Very few people are going to take a ticket where it scans your plate to pay, then go up and be bad,” Randall said.
Lester agreed, saying the open, top floor of the garage is inviting because it offers such a great view of the valley and the Highlands.
“Nobody is going to pay to go up there if they can go somewhere else to get the same view,” the sheriff said.
He said parking garages throughout the country are used by transients to get out of the rain and snow, but soon few will use it because it will be too cold. But the issues will resurface in the spring.
Lester said police encourage homeless people to go to the Butte Rescue Mission’s shelters but some refuse because they would rather stay on the streets. Still, police try to move them from public buildings.
“Nobody is comfortable when someone is sleeping and you’re parking your car next to them,” Lester said.
But there are things police cannot do, he said, including arresting people for panhandling.
“We’ve had people come up and say, ‘Hey, I was in the parking garage and someone asked me for a couple of bucks,’” Lester said. “I’m going to say, ‘I know that probably made you uncomfortable but it’s not against the law.’ I think some people expect people to be arrested for that and it’s just not something we can do.”
Randall said in today’s society, used needles turn up in lots of places, including the garage. People should contact his department if they find any and the needles will be picked up.
Gallagher said the full game plan is not complete and he is looking at the possibility of hiring security for the garage, but the steps outlined to date should help.
"I think the intent was they were trying to make it a garage that didn't need a lot of manpower and now we are realizing there needs to be a presence in that garage to make it work better," he said. "The (pay) ticketing system and having more presence there is important."