Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Sun Valley budget spurs policy debates

Housing, compensation dominate financial talks

Express Staff Writer

Nils Ribi

The Sun Valley City Council unanimously voted Friday, July 21, to approve an approximately $6.9 million funding plan for the coming year, despite heated debates about affordable housing and housing compensation for employees.

"No council has ever had this kind of information, and that is why we are all thinking deeper and harder about this budget," Councilwoman Ann Agnew said.

The council focused considerable attention on workforce housing plans. The council approved a $352,628 workforce-housing budget that included a $27,000 financial commitment to the Blaine Ketchum Housing Authority for operational support.

But the budgetary consideration of workforce housing opened a debate about the city's housing policies. Specifically, council members debated about three affordable housing units purchased by the city last winter for city employees in the Elkhorn Springs development, which is at the site of the former Elkhorn Resort. Only one of the units is occupied.

The vacant rental units prompted the larger debate.

"Does it really make sense for the city to own that many units, or does it make sense for the city to encourage individual ownership?" Councilman Nils Ribi asked.

City Administrator Virginia Egger recommended the council wait until Aug. 1 to see if demand among city employees for rental units rises. If there is no demand, the city could return the condos to the housing authority.

"We should encourage our employees to buy," Ribi said.

Encouraging ownership, rather than providing rental units for city employees, is a major change in the city's housing policy. During the approval of workforce housing ordinances last year, city officials stressed the need for a mix of housing units.

Rebekah Helzel, founder of Advocates for Real Community Housing, a local nonprofit organization, encouraged Sun Valley to release the city's unoccupied Elkhorn housing units to the housing authority.

The council agreed to wait until Aug. 1 before deciding whether to release the units. Ribi also suggested the city take a look at whether administrative staff should be considered for housing.

"I think we should play this out for the year with the policy we have set ... There is value in having units for our personnel in our community," Agnew said. "I don't think we should be changing policy this year. We are all just absorbing what needs to happen regionally."

Debate over housing policies re-emerged with the city administrator's request for a housing subsidy for a new city planner compensation package. The council nixed the request and decided a policy governing housing subsidies should be established, although such subsidies are already offered to the city's fire chief and street superintendent.

The city's unanimous approval of the fiscal year budget was in light of a larger, long-term financial analysis presented with the budget. City officials saw a multi-year financial strategy that projected future revenues and expenditures and provided three previous years of actual expenditures.

Given the benefit of up-to-date figures, the council voted to amend the 2005-2006 budget appropriation to $7.9 million to reflect actual revenues and expenditures. The amendment shows higher expected revenues and lower expenditures than planned.

Other considerations were:

• In the coming year, the city plans to allocate increases to consultants, recreation and transportation line items. For regional transportation needs, the council agreed to fund a bus shelter and allocate $20,000 to Wood River Rideshare.

• The council made a $30,000 allocation for recreation services through the city of Ketchum's Recreation Department. Little discussion surrounded a $50,000 allocation for recreational services with the Wood River Community YMCA in Ketchum.

• The administrative budget increased by 17 percent primarily because of rising health insurance costs, but also because of merit pay, office supply and travel expenditures.

"I see the administrative overhead continuing to grow and grow... it appears to me that we have a big administrative department," Ribi said.

The budget provides for one new full-time employee, to be hired in the city's Community Development Department.

Councilman Lud Renick expressed concerns about the city's expanding administration. Specifically he mentioned the city administrator's compensation, which is set at $105,000. He suggested instituting a program to offer the city administrator more time off work in lieu of compensation.

"I am here to work at the highest level ... If I am asked to do more work, I expect to be compensated," Egger said. She did extensive work on the 2005 Comprehensive Plan Update, which she said saved the city consultant fees.

· The proposal budget adds a lump-sum request to increase wages of the council. The specific amount of the raise request may be determined later in the year. The actual allocation of the money for salary increases requires City Council approval of an additional ordinance.

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