Wednesday, April 25, 2007

County and cities move toward regional planning

Visioning for highway, airport, KART could benefit

Express Staff Writer

Tom Bowman Photo by Mountain Express


Regional planning effort stresses cooperation

Blaine County's commissioners and the mayors of the county's five cities took the first steps Friday toward forming a regional planning organization.

Usually called councils of government, or COGs for short, such organizations have become common in many states, including Idaho. The local organization has been named the Blaine Regional Leadership Council.

During a summit meeting Friday, April 20, at the Old Blaine County Courthouse, attended by about 30 people, Ketchum City Administrator Ron LeBlanc said regional planning organizations address a wide variety of issues, including transportation, clean water, housing, public safety and agency services. County Commissioner Tom Bowman mentioned highway planning, flood control and the airport as issues of local importance. Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall added KART and fire department consolidation.

"The county is behind regional cooperation to get things done," Bowman said.

The leadership council is envisioned as a means of coordinating plans, rather than as a decision-making body. Meeting participants agreed that decisions requiring expenditures of money would have to be referred to the various city councils and to the County Commission.

Though the officials did not draw up a proposal for the organization's structure to be put before city councils, a second meeting of the fledgling organization was tentatively set for May 23. Discussion at Friday's meeting indicated that once underway, the council would meet less often than monthly. Hall suggested that it meet quarterly.

All three county commissioners attended Friday's meeting, but Bowman said that from now on, only one of them would sit on the council.

Supporters of the leadership council had to overcome the reluctance of Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant and, to a lesser extent, that of Carey Mayor Rick Baird.

"If we're trying to solve a problem, I'll participate," Baird said. "If we're trying to impose our will on someone else, I won't participate."

McBryant said she did not support the creation of another layer of meetings that the public would be required to attend, or the imposition of more expenses on her city. By the end of the meeting, her concerns appeared to have been mollified, though she said some of the issues important to other cities, such as housing, are not important to Hailey. She pointed to an increase in nitrate levels in the valley's aquifer as an issue that is. McBryant suggested that each local leader come to the next meeting with a list of five issues that he or she would like to see addressed regionally.

"We do need to have these discussions with each other," she said.

Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson said in an interview that the leadership council could also serve as a forum for city and county leaders to hear the concerns of private organizations.

LeBlanc told the group that formation of a regional planning organization would also benefit the county in its applications for federal grants.

"The more we have regional cooperation, the more we get funded," he said.

He said that optimally, the leadership council would hire a regional planner and a grant writer.

Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Carol Waller told the county and city leaders that the chamber is "very supportive" of the regional planning concept.

One regional planning body cited as an example for Blaine County was the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, which includes the mountain resort towns of Aspen, Vail, Steamboat Springs and Breckenridge. In interviews with the Mountain Express, several of the people involved with that organization cited its effectiveness.

"It's absolutely a fabulous organization," Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon said.

Among other things, the group has addressed water distribution and planning for Interstate 70, obtained grants for home insulation and small business startups, and prompted the introduction of federal legislation to combat mountain pine beetle infestation. Comprising an area much larger than Blaine County, the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments has a budget of $4 million. However, Runyon said, only 8 percent of that comes from members' dues.

"We leverage a lot of money," he said.

Runyon pointed out that with a full-time staff and a lobbyist at the State Legislature, the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments is more than a discussion group.

"Whenever local leaders get together and talk about common interests, that's a good thing," Runyon said. "But to be able to expedite maters, you probably need a staff."

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