Wednesday, July 12, 2006

City grapples with housing fairness

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum city leaders are struggling with the issue of being fair to all residents who need affordable housing and retaining essential city employees.

The Ketchum City Council Monday reviewed a draft resolution pertaining to city employee rental-housing subsidies, ultimately sending the document back to city staff for amendments.

Providing subsidies to essential city employees is seen as a way to boost recruitment and retention, as well as save on costs to hire people.

Among remaining questions are whether the subsidies should come out of the city's housing fund—which holds in-lieu payments from development projects—or from individual departments' budgets, and what, if any, subsidy cap there should be.

Departments such as fire and police could handle a few thousand dollars' payment, said City Administrator Ron LeBlanc. But, "in smaller budgets it could be a big deal."

The draft version offered average market-rate housing prices in Ketchum and Hailey. The subsidy rate is the difference between market rate and what an employee pays. That latter number, in the draft resolution, is based on income, with additional credit for seniority and experience.

Another idea floated was to create bunk housing for police and streets department personnel, much like fire stations have.

Councilwoman Terry Tracy expressed regret that the city didn't pursue the purchase of four units in the Pineridge Townhomes project at 1908 Warm Springs Road.

The council unanimously passed a resolution in January to revoke a prior resolution to purchase those units.

"I'm sorry we didn't buy those," she said. "I see a budget that's out of control and housing (subsidies) could be a big part of that."

City leaders abandoned that venture after determining that the purchase would be unfair to other residents because it would take the units out of the general—and small—pool of available affordable housing.

Councilman Ron Parsons said the subsidy program should be pursued quickly to stem the tide of departing employees.

"Are we tripping over a dollar to pick up a dime here?" he asked. "If we're not retaining anybody, then we're just kidding ourselves. I'm pretty convinced there's some rationale in a subsidy. It's not a perfect scenario but I think it's in our best interest to get on with this."

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