Friday, February 27, 2009

Elected officials weigh in on city merger

Kemp signs petition; others back away from support or opposition

Express Staff Writer

The cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley have always been close geographically, but separated by business, culture and population. Express photo by Willy Cook

In the few days since Sun Valley Councilman Dave Chase and Ketchum City Councilman Charles Conn made public their intentions of giving voters the opportunity to merge the two cities, the public debate has heated up rapidly.

On Monday, Conn and Chase announced the goal of the newly formed group One Community, One Town to solicit signatures for the petitions that would put the merger on the ballot, possibly by the August election.

The pair, acting as spokesmen for the group, which is made up of about 15 residents from both towns, estimated that $2 million could be saved annually from such a merger, making it a wise move in a tough economic environment.

However, if a dozen comments on the Idaho Mountain Express Web site are any gauge, public opinion is split on the issue, with opposition pointing to the current fiscal differences between the neighboring cities.

While Sun Valley is on track to have about $2.5 million in reserves when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, Ketchum made staffing cuts last week as part of a struggle to keep its budget in balance.

Chase and Conn noted that Ketchum serves as Sun Valley's downtown, since the resort town doesn't have its own business core. That's just one of a number of reasons they cite for the cities to consolidate.

In interviews, elected officials from the cities hesitated to support or oppose the movement.

Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall delved further into the fiscal discrepancy between the two cities, noting that as the commercial core for both, Ketchum must meet different expenses.

"We have had to spend to stimulate the economy the best we can in order to bring more tourists here," Hall said. "They need sidewalks to get around town."

Hall explained that the severity of the economic downturn is necessitating the investigation of actions such as merging the cities, but said more details are needed before voters can make an informed decision.

"It's a daunting task and the devil is in the details, but if the data shows it will enhance the level of service and economic vitality of the cities, then I would be for it," Hall said. "These are two very smart councilmen doing what they're supposed to do—find ways to improve their communities, and this means looking at all options in this economy. For people to be opposed before all the facts have been presented is not constructive."

Conn said a large reduction in overhead could be achieved by having only one administration, a single city hall and fewer city vehicles.

"We're in unprecedented times, and with the challenges to residents and businesses, this is a discussion we should have," Sun Valley Councilwoman Joan Lamb said. "I don't know where I'll come out on this, but I'm interested in seeing the pros and cons. From a general financial standpoint, consolidating services generally creates cost savings."

Lamb's fellow councilman Nils Ribi said he was also looking forward to analyzing the data, but was more skeptical of the possible positive impacts.

"What effect will there be on the local economy if 30 or more people are let go as a result of a merger?" Ribi asked. "I don't just want to read marketing hype about saving $2 million."

Ribi said the argument about the duplication of services is far from simple. Sun Valley's departments have a different focus from their Ketchum counterparts, he said.

As an example, Ribi said residents need to understand how merging the police and fire departments would affect the level of service on events, such as the Allen & Co. conference or concerts at the Sun Valley Pavilion.

Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich, who has vocally opposed the consolidation of police or fire departments, is less than supportive of the idea.

Willich said that if he were presented with hard data that demonstrate the proposed savings, he would be forced to consider the proposal. However, until then, he didn't think it would make sense for Sun Valley taxpayers.

Ketchum City Councilman Curtis Kemp is the only other council member from either city to sign the petition at this point.

"I'm interested to see what people think," Kemp said. "I think getting the merger on the ballot is a prudent move in these challenging times and I have no reservations about moving forward to find out how much money could be saved."

Ketchum Councilman Larry Helzel was more reserved in an e-mail to the Idaho Mountain Express, but also said the petition campaign would help bring the facts to light.

"My uneducated hunch is that, at this point, voters will not warmly embrace the idea," Helzel wrote in an e-mail. "There is often a difference between what makes good economic/financial sense and what people want. In this case, we may find out that this difference is a real chasm."

Ketchum City Council President Baird Gourlay said part of the difficulty with the merger would be figuring out how to ensure equitable representation for the voters of both cities.

Gourlay said that even if there are cost savings to be had, there will be some residents who view this as an attempt for Ketchum to grab more land, an idea he emphatically rejected.

Sun Valley Councilman Dewayne Briscoe was out of town and unable to respond to an interview request at press time.

As dictated by Idaho code, the petitions would need 20 percent of registered voters in both cities' last elections to get on the ballot—that means the signatures of 418 Ketchum voters and just under 100 in Sun Valley.

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