Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Officials: County isnít trying to confuse voters

Hailey has alleged the county wants to derail dispatch levy vote

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County officials say they didn't reword the language for an upcoming ballot initiative to dissuade voters from supporting the countywide tax levy increase meant to pay for dispatchers' salaries.

Late last week, Hailey officials discovered the wording changes and alleged that county officials made them to confuse voters.

"I believe the changes were made intentionally," Hailey Mayor Rick Davis charged in an interview last Thursday.

The ongoing dispatcher salaries funding dispute has also led at least one county official to declare that the time is right to renew discussions about whether consolidating emergency services themselves would be prudent. Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said he decided to bring up the issue prior to the Nov. 4 vote because of the opportunity the current dispatch funding impasse raises.

Blaine County Administrator Mike McNees disputed Davis' claims during a meeting of the Blaine County Commission on Tuesday.

Though the draft language for the Proposition 2 ballot initiative was proposed by Hailey officials, it was up to the county to write the ballot language, McNees said.

"It wasn't changed, it was written and adopted," he said.

The language adopted by the county that so riled up Hailey leaders reads: "Shall the Blaine County Board of County Commissioners be authorized to annually increase Blaine County taxes permanently in the amount of $835,000 ...?"

By contrast, the dispatch ballot language proposed by Hailey officials read: "Shall the Blaine County Board of County Commissioners be authorized to permanently increase the Blaine County budget ...?" It did not include the word "annually."

McNees said the main difficulty is that the county has also authorized a separate ballot initiative—called Proposition 1, or the "Land, Water and Wildlife Levy"—that would temporarily raise property tax rates in the county for two years to fund open-space preservation. County officials wanted to make sure there was no confusion between the open space and dispatch levy requests, he said.

McNees said the intent of the dispatch levy language is to specify that a "yes" vote would approve "a permanent, annual levy," not that county property tax rates would increase annually.

"It is a permanent, one-time increase," echoed County Commissioner Tom Bowman.

The dispatch ballot initiative would raise an additional $835,000 per year to fund operational expenses of the consolidated 911 dispatch communications center, which is managed by the County Commission. Approval of the permanent override to county property tax levy rates will require a two-thirds majority.

For county homeowners, the levy override would mean an extra charge of $6.71 per $100,000 of assessed property value on their annual property taxes. Based on the county's median home value of $436,000, that would add an extra $29.25 in property taxes per year.

Back in July, county officials agreed to a request from Hailey leaders to have county voters consider the override this November.

During the past few months, a common misconception has been that cost of emergency dispatch in the county has increased recently due to consolidation. In reality, Schoen said, the costs have dropped. Last year, the two dispatch centers that existed in the county—one run by Ketchum and the other by the county—merged into a single consolidated center in Hailey.

That has allowed the number of countywide dispatchers to drop from 18 to 12 and the cost to decrease by 20 percent.

Schoen said the time is right to discuss whether similar efficiencies could be had by moving toward a countywide consolidation of emergency services, a move that has been discussed endlessly for years.

Many have argued against fire consolidation because of the administrative changes such a move might mean for local fire departments. Specifically, those arguing against merging—including representatives from the Hailey Fire Department—have in the past expressed fears about the loss of their department's identity and possible staffing reductions should area fire departments merge into one.

But economic realities and the budget crunches faced by local governments may overshadow that argument, Schoen contends. He said forming a community-wide task force to discuss the consolidation question as well as costs and appropriate levels of service may be in order.

"I think the public is no longer willing to continue spending more than we need to spend," he said.

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