Friday, March 13, 2009

Ads, 'white papers' heat up merger debate

Conn reworks numbers

Express Staff Writer

Dave Chase

The proposed merger between Sun Valley and Ketchum has sparked plenty of conversation since the idea of bringing the issue to ballot was announced last month.

While Ketchum City Councilman Charles Conn, spokesman for the group One Community, One Town, continued with his financial analysis of the two cities, another group took a public stand against the merger.

In an advertisement in Wednesday's edition of the Idaho Mountain Express, a group called Citizens Against Consolidation warned Sun Valley residents that under state statute, Ketchum would take over Sun Valley once a consolidation is approved. The ad was paid for by Sun Valley resident Marcee Graff.

Idaho Code does indeed require that in the case of a consolidation, the name and governing ordinances of the city with the greater population be retained.

However, both Conn and fellow spokesman Dave Chase, a member of the Sun Valley City Council, have maintained that the new city council, to be elected within three months of the consolidation ballot, could change the name.

Many supporters of the merger, including Ketchum resident and One Community, One Town attorney Miles Stanislaw, have said the name Sun Valley should be retained, largely because of its national recognition.

Conn said he will contact the Idaho Attorney General's office about the process for changing the name, but that it might end up being a decision of the Legislature. State Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said such a change could be done fairly easily "if that's what the people want."

Addressing the issue of existing ordinances, Conn said Sun Valley zoning ordinances could be "grandfathered" in by the new council. As well, Conn noted that state code also prevents ordinances from being repealed in cases where "vested rights have accrued."

"This could likely be applied to every part of the city that has streets or homes, and not cause much of a change at all," Conn said.

The Citizens Against Consolidation ad also notes that the new administration, elected by residents from both cities, would lead to unfavorable representation for current Sun Valley residents, who would make up about 30 percent of the population of the combined city.

State law mandates that if voters approve the measure, the elected officials of both cities would be immediately fired from their positions and a new election would be held within 60 to 90 days after the consolidation vote.

As regulated 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.

In response to comments on the Mountain Express Web site regarding the consolidation issue, Chase argued against suggestions that his effort to put the issue on the ballot is for his own interests.

"I'll pledge to you that I will not run for office in a combined city," Chase wrote on the Web site. "Reasonable people can disagree on whether consolidation makes sense, but the only thing that I stand to gain is what I perceive to be a community benefit from the consolidation. From my perspective, I'd be derelict in my fiduciary responsibilities to not bring up this discussion. In the end, it could get on the ballot and fail for any number of reasons, but what exactly is the harm in having that discussion?"

Conn has also fielded criticism for his financial comparison of the two cities, as Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich and Sun Valley City Council President Nils Ribi argued that his methodology unfairly portrayed the financial situation in their city.

In his original analysis, Conn showed that both cities have similar sources of revenue, namely property taxes and local-option tax receipts, as well as similar expenditures. Looking at the populations and budgets of both cities, Conn said Sun Valley residents spend more per person on city services such as police and fire, as well as on administrative duties.

But in interviews, Ribi and Willich disputed those calculations. They argued that because of the high proportion of second-home owners in the city, estimated to be about 70 percent of the total, the cost for services is actually significantly lower for full-time residents.

In response to that, Conn reworked his analysis, using the tax parcels in both cities, in addition to population, to compare revenues and expenses per taxpayer.

Though the new figures, which can be viewed at, change some of Conn's comparisons, Willich once again criticized the analysis.

"It's disingenuous to portray this as an honest comparison," Willich said. "There is no savings analysis anywhere. Who says (the proposed savings) are a given?"

Conn and Chase have maintained that through reductions in the duplications of services, the cities could save more than $2 million annually.

Willich also said a merger could affect Sun Valley's credit rating, which is very good given the city's relatively low level of debt, which includes $1.7 million in general obligation debt and a $275,000 note.

Willich said the Ketchum Urban Renewal Agency's $5.2 million debt could impact the city's credit rating. Though this debt is scheduled to be repaid through incremental property tax revenues that would otherwise go to Blaine County, Willich said the city would be stuck with the bill should something happen to the agency.

"This could mean a potential lawsuit from Sun Valley bond holders if they end up with a lower credit rating as a result of a merger," Willich said.

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