Friday, January 1, 2010

County, state grapple with budget woes

Sen. Clint Stennett misses 2009 Legislature but plans to return

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County enjoyed a relatively quiet 2009, resolving its long-running issue over the proposed development of Cove Springs subdivision and putting the final touches on an ordinance to regulate the installation of wind-energy facilities.

On the state level, Idaho officials grappled with a significant budget deficit and continue to do so. On the much brighter side of state politics, Idaho Sen. Clint Stennett from Ketchum is recovering from cancer, though he will miss the start of the 2010 Legislature.

Cove Springs resolved

After more than a year of legal wrangling, the Blaine County Commission approved the proposed Cove Springs development, albeit as a version greatly revised from the original application the commissioners denied in 2007.

Developers of the 4,635-acre Cove Ranch initially proposed a 307-lot subdivision five miles southeast of Bellevue off Gannett Road. It was the largest development ever proposed in the county. Opposition to the project during County Commission and Planning and Zoning Commission hearings came from wide-ranging interests.

The developers sued the county in the wake of the denial, which ultimately resulted in a mediated agreement between the county and the developers that gave approval to a new application for just 24 estate and equestrian lots.

Will the wind blow?

After nearly a dozen public hearings, the County Commission closed in on an ordinance that will permit and regulate wind-energy facilities.

The ordinance, slated for final approval this month, would prohibit wind-energy facilities, either freestanding or mounted on a rooftop, within the scenic corridor. This corridor, designated as the area visible from state Highway 75 north of Bellevue's Glendale Road, proved the most highly contested issue for interested members of the public.

In its draft, which the commissioners have all but approved, the ordinance would allow wind turbines of up to 120 feet to be erected on parcels of at least 20 acres without a conditional-use permit.

In residential zones, the ordinance allows roof-mounted wind turbines of up to 40 feet above ground level on properties of five acres or more without requiring a conditional-use permit.

Stennett on the mend

In January 2008, Idaho Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and immediately underwent surgery. Only a few weeks later, the Senate minority leader returned to the Legislature and finished out the session while enduring chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

However, Stennett was absent from the 2009 Legislature due to his treatment, designating former Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson as his temporary replacement.

In December, Stennett, 53, announced the positive news that he had completed his final chemotherapy treatment in November and that his tumors were gone.

However, as he continues his recovery, Stennett will once again be forced to miss the opening of the upcoming Legislature, scheduled to convene Jan. 11.

Stepping in for Stennett during the beginning of the session will be his wife, Michelle, who has been touring District 25 to familiarize herself with the issues.

Budget battles in Boise

While Stennett continues his recovery, other elected state officials have their own challenging task in front of them, in the form of an estimated budget shortfall of $151 million for the current fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2010.

In September, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter ordered spending holdbacks from state departments ranging from 2.5 to 7.5 percent to help curb spending. That and dipping into reserves has reduced the deficit to about $50 million.

State Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said that in the case that the state does not experience economic growth in the next year, the 2010-11 budget will be bleak as well, and might have to be cut another 9 to 11 percent.

County looks at Blaine Manor deficit

The Blaine County Commission is facing a difficult situation when it comes to funding the Blaine Manor senior care facility in Hailey.

While discussing the coming 2010 budget in August, Commission Chair Larry Schoen said voters could be asked to approve an override of the county's property tax levy rate next May to help cover the facility's $700,000 operating deficit.

Much of the county's annual expenses are for state-mandated programs that all counties must provide. But Blaine Manor is one of a number of programs Blaine County has funded that are not required by law.

Since 2000, the county has paid for a portion of the nursing facility's budget not covered by fees and other revenue. For 2010, the county is funding just under $625,000 of the facility's budget.

Schoen said that if the facility is not granted more funding soon, it could be closed.

For the long term, a new senior-care facility is planned for a site in Croy Canyon west of Hailey.

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