Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Housing director resigns

Hard times befall housing authority

Express Staff Writer

Less than a week after the Blaine County Housing Authority announced that its fiscal 2009 budget was in the red, its chief executive has tendered his resignation.

Executive Director Jim Fackrell has accepted a community development position with a city in south Florida, and his departure from the Blaine County Housing Authority will be effective Sept. 26.

"When things were looking a little bleak this past spring it prompted me to start looking," he said. "By the end of February we were one payroll away from closing our doors."

Fackrell, who is the housing authority's sixth executive director in 10 years, said the financial woes of the past year began when Ketchum delayed disbursement of $70,000 it had budgeted for the housing authority.

"With the change in city administrator at Ketchum it fell through the cracks," Fackrell said. "I thought it would be foolish to sit around on my hands. Had our funding outlook been a bit securer I would not have gone out looking for another position."

Susan Passovoy, housing authority board chairwoman, said Fackrell, his staff and the volunteer board have worked to strengthen the authority and build community alliances to respond to the growing housing needs of the local workforce.

"This work has been made more difficult in the face of shifting economic, legislative and judicial landscapes," Passovoy said. "In spite of these disruptive forces, Jim's work has remained steady and his advice exceedingly valuable."

Now the housing authority drifts toward an uncertain horizon. Fackrell's departure coincides with attempts to make up a projected $40,000 budget shortfall.

"How can we attract (a new director) when his or her employer is struggling with funding on a month-to-month basis?" Passovoy asked.

With $205,359 in projected income and $232,582 in projected expenses, plus $11,629 for a 5 percent contingency fund, the housing authority's budget isn't yet balanced, despite the fact that the projected budget has already been trimmed by $40,000. Also, the budget is projected to be $50,000 less than the authority's fiscal 2008 budget of $282,628.

The city of Ketchum and Blaine County have been the housing authority's most consistent financial backers. Ketchum has allocated $70,000 for the organization's 2009 budget and Blaine County has allocated $67,000, both the same as last year.

Meanwhile, Sun Valley has reduced its allocation from $35,000 last year to $10,000 this year, and Hailey has reduced its allocation from $12,000 to $6,000.

Bellevue and Carey do not help fund the authority.

"It really takes commitment from all the local governments in a resort community to make any meaningful progress to the housing situation," Fackrell said.

Passavoy said this week that discussions with Blaine County and its cities should soon occur, but at an Aug. 27 board meeting, housing commissioners appeared frustrated.

Commissioner John Flattery said that if the municipalities don't want to help fund the housing authority during tight times, "I think it's time to think about unwinding this thing and going on to do other things."

"As critical as housing is," he said, "for us to be on our knees begging for less than 1 percent of the combined budgets of these communities—I don't get it. I just don't get it."

In study after study, Passovoy said, housing has risen to the top of the list of challenges facing the long-term economic and social health of the Wood River Valley. Moreover, the community's collective consciousness appears to have embraced community housing as a vital issue.

"Housing is the No. 1 issue, and we are perplexed at it not receiving acknowledgement in the funding," she said. "There's a disconnect there."

Efforts to procure affordable, deed-restricted community housing in Blaine County have proved challenging from the outset. Ketchum citizens orchestrated an attempted recall in 1998 of City Council members who voted in favor of the Wood River Valley's first community housing project, The Fields at Warm Springs.

Since then, six executive directors have come and, now, gone. And the political winds are still shifting. What's more, Fackrell said the community's appetite for affordable housing has not been satiated even though progress has been made.

There are, in fact, about 80 deed-restricted community housing units in Blaine County, said Nancy Smith, the housing authority's office manager.

"I spent 17 and a half years of my career with the city of Boise doing housing, so I know when you have the political commitment and funding to do that. It can be done," Fackrell said. "Here in Blaine County the problem doesn't go away. The problem is still here. Unfortunately my departure doesn't mean the problem just goes away."

Fackrell said that, looking back, he doesn't know what the board or staff could have done differently. He said the board is impressively committed, and the organization has weathered a reduction in the organization's staff since his arrival in October 2006.

"I see some reluctance from members of the board if there's not a clear financial commitment from the cities and the county," Fackrell said. "But the fact of the matter is that it's a county housing authority, and only the county can dissolve it."

Passovoy said the housing authority is culpable to some extent in that it may not have clearly communicated its situation to the municipalities that produce most of its funding. She also said the organization will try to keep its doors open during the transition between directors.

"We had an expectations gap. We had a delivery gap. We had a funding gap," she said. "We need to sit down with our stakeholders and knit those things together."

Passovoy said the housing authority has not yet begun advertising for a new director. It would not be fair, she said, to advertise until the budget conundrum is solved.

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