Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sun Valley settles its budget drama

City passes $7.02 million budget

Express Staff Writer

Following an action-packed Thursday meeting that produced a budget consideration stalemate, the Sun Valley City Council on Monday reached consensus and unanimously adopted a $7.02 million fiscal 2009 budget. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

The City Council reached agreement following a five-hour meeting, which followed a two-hour, drama-packed Thursday meeting. By the time the City Council wrapped things up on Monday, the political body was faced with a near-empty chamber that had, days earlier, been overflowing with curious local residents.

The bottom line, however, was that the council voted to decrease by $185,709 the amount it will spend on road improvements while budgeting $150,000 for two city shuttle busses and spending $35,000 more than previously budgeted on economic development, for a total of $335,000. The overall budget amount remained the same.

The consensus resolution, proposed by Councilman Dewayne Briscoe, helped the City Council reach a unanimous vote where it had, days earlier, been clearly divided.

"All four council members and the mayor are happy we resolved the budget," said Mayor Wayne Willich in a Tuesday telephone interview. "Now we can get working."

A meeting scheduled for Friday did not get traction when Councilwoman Joan Lamb and Councilman Dave Chase did not attend.

"I will not plan to be at today's or Monday's meeting unless I have a commitment ... that we can have an open, public discussion of proposed changes ... i.e. no attempts to cut off discussion," Lamb wrote in a Friday morning e-mail addressed to Councilman Nils Ribi and Mayor Wayne Willich. "It is our collective job to arrive at council consensus on the issues before us, which my Webster's defines as 'general agreement: unanimity.' I think we are capable of succeeding at this task."

A Monday morning meeting between Lamb, Ribi, Willich and City Administrator Sharon Hammer apparently produced different results.

The city's passage of a budget came only nine days before the state's Sept. 2 deadline, and the Thursday stalemate prompted officials to schedule meetings each night this week should they be needed to find accord before that deadline.

That was ultimately not needed.

"Whenever you get people in a situation like that who have strong feelings you get tension," Willich said of the Thursday meeting. "And we had a lot of tension in that meeting."

Thursday's tension centered around a distinct divide on how to proceed. Councilwoman Joan Lamb and Councilman Dave Chase sought to amend the budget. Councilmen Briscoe and Nils Ribi sought to pass it as previously passed July 21 in a three-to-two vote in which Willich broke the tie.

The tension surfaced twice during the Thursday council considerations. At one point while Lamb was discussing with City Attorney Adam King a related, though separate, charge regarding impartiality and an alleged conflict of interest, Willich slammed his gavel repeatedly and demanded that he be allowed to control the deliberations.

Later in the meeting the council divided on whether or not to waive the three readings customary to passage of an ordinance prior to or after discussing the substance of the ordinance. Either method is legal, though King pointed out it is customary that discussion occurs prior to waiving any readings.

"I didn't realize I have a microphone right next to the gavel," Willich said when questioned about his outburst. "So it boomed out there. That's one thing."

The other thing, he said, is that Idaho statute says the mayor is the presiding officer, "not a moderator."

"The bottom line is, I get to manage the meeting within certain guidelines," he said. "We're trying to get some discipline in our meetings here. A council meeting is not a moderated meeting, and it is not a town hall meeting. It is supposed to have some rigor associated with it."

In the final push toward passage of a budget, divisions among council members became relatively clear. Ribi wanted to fully fund a proposed $835,000 in road improvements. Lamb sought to juggle a number of line items, including a reduction in road spending, increase in carryover, more economic development spending, more recreation spending and less money on fire and police departments. Chase also sought to increase economic development spending.

All but Ribi wanted to move ahead with budgeting money to purchase small commuter busses that will service the city.

City Administrator Hammer warned the council late Monday evening about biting off too many changes.

"You've been through this big, long process for months now," she said. "I have to say, typically, there are very few changes made at this point in the process. I would just suggest that you seriously consider whether you need to make changes right now to your budget."

Hammer advised that if the council changes too many things around, the city would have a budget different from what was available for public review.

"You start to get into gray issues (in terms of accountability)," she said. "In my professional opinion and as your city administrator, I can tell you this is a lot of changes to a budget that has been tentatively approved."

In the final determination, the five road projects totaling $835,907 were lumped into a collective fund totaling $650,907. The difference is to be used to fund an additional $35,000 for economic development, for a total of $335,000, and $150,000 for the two busses.

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