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The cost of plugging a downtown parking meter could double from 25 cents to 50 cents an hour under a multi-tiered rate increase plan that goes before the City Council tonight.

City officials and downtown business owners have been studying new parking rates for nearly a year. Some business owners say higher rates are justified. Others fear the higher rates will be bad for business.

"It will be controversial, no doubt about it," said Greg Krueger, executive director of the Downtown Billings Partnership.

Parking rates in city-owned parking garages will also increase, but by a smaller margin. Under the plan, parking on the roof of a city garage would rise from $20 to $25 a month. For covered, reserved spots, the fee goes from $45 to $50 monthly.

Hourly parking rates in city parking garages will also increase, but by a smaller amount. The current rate is a flat 25 cents an hour. Under the new structure, the rate would remain at 25 cents hourly for the first two hours but would increase to $1 an hour after that, with a maximum charge of $5 per day.

City officials say that doubling metered rates while only slightly increasing the cost of parking in the garages should have the effect of encouraging more downtown workers to park in the garages, freeing up the prime on-street spaces for shoppers and visitors. The city hasn't adjusted its rates for on-street metered spaces since 2001, when the fee went from 10 cents to 25 cents an hour.

Although a majority of Downtown Billings Partnership members voted for the higher fees, some business owners don't support it.

"It was a contentious issue," Krueger said. "It's going to be iffy with some of the merchants."

Bill Honaker, a member of the partnership's downtown property owners group, said there are no easy answers for solving the downtown parking problem. Honaker owns Walkers Grill, which is open at night and is less affected by parking meter rates.

Retailers who operate during the day want to keep the metered rates low. But there's a perception that employees of downtown businesses

monopolize the on-street metered spots, he said.

"And some people say, 'Why not have free parking to make it more accessible?' So I'm kind of torn," Honaker said, adding that he used to pay $300 a month for parking when he lived in Philadelphia.

The higher fees are expected to boost parking revenues by around $600,000 per year.

According to city staff, the additional money will help the Parking Division pay for the proposed expansion of the Park 2 parking garage and other downtown parking projects.

The biggest parking project now under consideration is the addition of 377 spaces to the Park 2 garage, which will house a Wells Fargo drive-through bank on the ground floor. The expansion will increase the capacity of that garage to 930 spaces. The city now has 2,056 garage spaces, of which 350 are hourly spots, and about 1,000 parking meters, of which 132 are 10-hour meters.

The sole bid the city received last month for the Park 2 expansion was $7.8 million, which was $1.3 million more than what had been budgeted. The council will consider what to do with the Park 2 bid during its June 26 meeting.

Because the new parking fees and the bid for the Park 2 expansion are so closely tied together, the council may decide to delay the fee increase until June 26, said Deputy City Administrator Bruce McCandless.

Ballot language

In other business, the council will consider an ordinance intended to prevent voter confusion in future mill levy elections.

The ordinance would amend city code to include specific requirements for language included in mill levy ballots. If the ordinance is approved, ballots for future mill levy elections must state whether the levy is permanent or whether it would sunset. A ballot must include the dollar amount and the number of mills for each year and the total mills and dollars that would be raised.

Ballot language became an issue last year in the wake of a 2004 public safety levy to pay for police officers and firefighters. Al Garver, an unsuccessful candidate for mayor, said the city of deceived voters because the ballot language didn't specifically say whether the levy would be temporary or permanent. In response to concerns from Garver, Yellowstone County Treasurer Max Lenington and others, the city asked for a letter of advice from the attorney general.

In November, Attorney General Mike McGrath's letter said the city complied with state election laws.

But the council later agreed to clarify how future ballots would be worded.

Although city staff prepared the ordinance as directed, Interim City Administrator Tina Volek said she is recommending the council take no further action.

She said the council already has the authority to include specific language on a ballot without passing another ordinance.

"I think the council is aware of the concerns and can address those," she said.

Businessman Clayton Fiscus, who chairs a citizen group called Citizens for Honest Ballots, said the proposed ordinance looks good.

"It's perfect, just what we were asking for," Fiscus said Friday.

Fiscus is also an organizer in an initiative to repeal the public safety levy. He said Citizens for Honest Ballots has collected about 7,000 of the 9,425 signatures needed to place the repeal on the November general election ballot.

The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Contact Tom Howard at thoward@billingsgazette.com 657-1261.

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