Friday, July 7, 2006

Department heads voice need for housing

Ketchum officials say costs drive away employees

Express Staff Writer

A stream of Ketchum city department heads came before the City Council this week to plead for help in recruiting and retaining employees.

That could be done, they said, by helping secure roofs over their heads.

A discussion item on the Ketchum City Council's agenda Monday, July 3, pertained to establishing the city as a leasing agency for housing units, subsidizing the cost of security deposits and rent, and subleasing the properties to qualified employees.

"The intent of this policy is to provide a system for employees who need rental housing and to give them assistance if they need it," said City Administrator Ron LeBlanc. "What this resolution proposes is an interim housing assistance plan for the next 12 months, then a permanent plan open to all existing city employees."

The cost would come out of the city's housing account, which contains $1.2 million, LeBlanc said, and candidates would be screened by the same system used by the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority to ensure need.

LeBlanc estimated there would be 10 to 15 eligible employees.

But the idea was too much, too soon, for some council members.

"Philosophically, I am very sympathetic," said Councilman Steven Shafran. But, "I don't feel comfortable going from concept to resolution."

Instead, he advocated a slower process that sets policy before discussing resolutions.

He also wanted to see more detailed accounting for how much the system would cost the city in terms of what the market rate for housing currently is, what employees would be expected to pay, and what the difference is that would be made up by the city.

Another sticking point for Shafran was the question of an employee breaking a lease, which could be discounted if it's long-term.

"If the city contracted with the employee, the city's on the hook for the next 12 months of the lease," he said. "How do you decide if it's worth it?"

Still, department heads insisted that without help, they would continue to lose employees—and not be able to replace them.

"We lost eight employees in a period of three years," said Assistant Police Chief Mike McNeil. "They left because they couldn't afford to buy a house here."

The problem is compounded for emergency responders, including the Streets Department in winter, because personnel have to live within a one-hour response-time radius. That eliminates housing options in less expensive markets such as Shoshone, south of Bellevue in Lincoln County.

Brian Christiansen, Streets Department superintendent, said he's had a vacancy for almost two months, and one staff person will retire soon.

"If we don't have some sort of housing assistance, we may lose even the employees we have," he said. "In the next six months, we may be looking for housing for five people."

The city previously tried to work as a liaison between landlords and renters by promising property owners long-term, reliable tenants, but the idea failed because other renters snatched the units up more quickly.

"What I learned from that process is the list (of available units) is outdated as soon as it's issued," LeBlanc said.

Council members expressed more comfort with subsidies that would come out of departments' budgets, rather than the general housing fund.

"In-lieu fees were (established) to produce housing for the public," said Councilman Baird Gourlay. "I understand the city has a problem. (But) it should come out of the general budget. It makes department heads more responsible if it's going to come out of their budgets."

City staff will contact the Blaine County School District to gather ideas about its housing assistance program. They will also conduct a market survey of property prices before bringing the subject back to the City Council later this month.

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