Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Council takes reins on YMCA lease plan

As mayor says land lease should be delayed, legislators insist it must be signed

Express Staff Writer

Sue Wolford, former Ketchum City Council member, urged city officials not to delay the progress of the YMCA. Photo by Willy Cook

In the tug-of-war that is the debate over the proposed Wood River Community YMCA, those in favor of the controversial project gained significant ground this week.

Before a packed chambers Monday, Feb. 7, Ketchum City Council members took decisive action to wrestle control of the YMCA matter from Mayor Ed Simon, voting unanimously to repeal an ordinance that would hinder the city from providing a piece of public land for the project.

At the same time, acting against the mayor's wishes, council members unanimously decided to work toward signing a land-lease agreement with YMCA leaders in the immediate future.

"With the council as a body, I think we're ready to move forward," said Council President Randy Hall.

The decisions by the council came at the close of a dramatic two-hour discussion Monday, during which a large contingent of YMCA supporters urged the mayor to set aside his intentions to delay a YMCA lease agreement.

"It's shocking to me that you as a mayor would be against it," Ketchum resident Corinne Cliford said to Simon. "A mayor who does not believe in a YMCA in the community is a mayor that should not be mayor anymore."

At issue Monday was how the city will move forward with finalizing a $1-per-year lease to provide the Ketchum-based YMCA group with approximately 1.5 acres of the city-owned Park and Ride lot, at the corner of Warm Springs and Saddle roads. The YMCA is in the throes of raising $16 million to build a new 84,000-square-foot recreation center on the 5.8-acre site.

On Monday, the City Council agenda called for issuing a third and final vote to repeal a 2004 ordinance—Ordinance 940—which mandated the city appraise the Park and Ride lot and conduct an advisory election on whether part of the site should be provided for the YMCA project.

City officials believe the ordinance must be repealed before the city can move forward with leasing any land to the YMCA. An advisory election was held last November—with a solid majority of citizens voting in favor of a YMCA land lease—but not all the requirements of Ordinance 940 have been entirely satisfied.

Simon has repeatedly said he would veto any decision to repeal the ordinance, primarily because he thinks the city should perform more studies on the long-term implications of entering a land lease before signing one.

"My obligation is to do what is in the public interest," Simon said at the start of the hearing. "Due diligence and fairness is my only interest."

Simon has indicated he is not altogether opposed to signing a lease with the YMCA, if he is satisfied the city has protected itself against significant financial risks.

In addition, he has said he wants the YMCA project to proceed through the city's planning-review process before the lease is signed, so it does not appear the city is conferring any special treatment to the YMCA.

After the council voted 3-0 Monday to repeal Ordinance 940, Simon warned that he has two weeks to decide whether or not he will veto the council's decision.

The council's legislation to repeal Ordinance 940 does not take effect until Simon signs it. If he does not, the council at its next meeting on Feb. 21 would have to muster a minimum of three votes to override the veto.

On Tuesday, Simon said "the odds are pretty good" he will veto the council's decision, with an understanding that the council almost certainly will override the veto and pursue signing the lease.

"At this moment, we're not really acting in the public interest," Simon said Tuesday. "It's not that I believe Ordinance 940 should be kept on the books, but that ordinance does preclude the city from entering into a lease agreement."

Despite Simon's arguments that the city has not completed its due diligence, he was met with strong challenges from all angles Monday.

Sue Wolford, a former Ketchum City Council member, said she "feels strongly" that the YMCA should be allowed to proceed with its plans.

"I urge you not to delay this any further," she said.

Ketchum business owner Jim Slanetz concurred.

"To go forward with the Y seems kind of like a no-brainer," he said. "We should probably stop dragging our feet on this thing."

Later, several people affiliated with the YMCA chimed in.

Benjamin Wood, YMCA fund raising manager, said securing a lease is critical to the success of the project.

"People aren't going to give us money if we don't have a lease," he said. When he pleaded, "Please, give us a lease, now," a loud round of applause filled the council's chambers.

YMCA board member Tom Praggastis, a Ketchum attorney, reminded Simon and the council that the YMCA's finances have been studied. Nonetheless, he said, the YMCA is supplying approximately $1.25 million of security funds in the event its revenues do not meet expectations.

"We're offering up as much financial security as we possibly can," Praggastis said.

Council members repealed Ordinance 940 after a slight shift by Councilwoman Terry Tracy. Tracy said she became willing to vote with Hall and Councilman Baird Gourlay after they agreed to support a separate resolution that declares the city will not subsidize the YMCA and will not outsource its recreation programs to the organization.

In the end, with Councilwoman Christina Potters absent, Tracy, Hall and Gourlay agreed to hold a special meeting on Feb. 17 to work with the YMCA on finalizing the lease agreement.

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