Wednesday, November 14, 2007

LeBlanc?s problem is everyone?s problem

Ketchum City Administrator Ron LeBlanc's departure to Colorado illustrates a problem that will continue to drain life from the Wood River Valley if not solved.

LeBlanc says that one of the reasons he is decamping for Colorado is that he did the math and concluded that when he retires he will not be able to afford to live in the valley.

This is despite the fact that LeBlanc makes $153,000 per year, which puts him in the top fifth of family incomes in the nation, and the fact that he will receive a healthy state pension when he retires.

As part of his job, LeBlanc puts together multi-million dollar budgets for the city every year. His talent for arithmetic is estimable. He's not whining about his dilemma; he's just stating the facts.

LeBlanc has looked closely at Idaho's property taxes and how they go up when market values go up. He has looked at the fact that market values of property have no relation to local incomes. Instead, they are related to speculative investments by some of the world's wealthiest people. He understands the gloomy fact that retirees' incomes are static relative to the property values that tend to increase over time.

In Colorado, LeBlanc will be affected little by property taxes because most local government functions are supported by sales taxes. By their nature, such taxes bear some relation to family incomes, which is not the case with property taxes.

Idaho lawmakers have steadfastly refused to give cities or counties "home rule" laws that would allow them, with the consent of taxpayers who would vote on taxation, to raise money with local sales taxes and to reduce property taxes.

Even so, Sun Valley, Ketchum and Hailey are some of the lucky few resort communities in the state that are allowed to levy limited sales taxes. That, combined with a state cap on local budget increases, has made property taxes in the valley some of the lowest in Idaho. Property tax bills for owners of properties in the Wood River Valley pay half of what they would pay elsewhere in Idaho on properties of the same value. Yet, the taxes are still vastly higher than in Colorado.

LeBlanc's problem is the problem of every local working family, every business and every government body. All are under pressure because of high property values, a stagnant economy and low incomes relative to the local cost of living.

His problem is difficult for legislators outside the valley, where median household incomes are around $43,000, compared to Blaine County's $54,000, to understand.

Yet, unless it's solved, the valley is likely to end up populated by mostly empty second homes, cardboard towns and a highly transient workforce with no local roots. It will have lost its soul.

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