Friday, May 7, 2010

Judge approves borrowing on levy

Sun Valley mayor’s formal objection threat fizzles


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

Lonnie Barber (top) Wayne Willich

Fifth District Court Judge Robert J. Elgee has approved a Blaine County School District plan to borrow money on future revenues from a $59.8 million plant facilities levy approved by county voters last year.

Elgee's approval of the plan Wednesday brought to a close a legally required "judicial confirmation" process initiated by the school district in December 2009.

"We're pleased with the ruling," District Superintendent Lonnie Barber said. "It allows us to move forward with the energy project first."

Barber was referring to development of geothermal resources and installation of heating, ventilating and air conditioning system retrofits at some of the district's buildings. Work will first start at Carey School and at Bellevue and Hailey elementary schools. Concurrent with that work, Barber said, the district will install new fire suppression systems and security upgrades and will make needed repairs and improvements at the three facilities.

Voters approved the levy in October to fund new construction, safety and security upgrades, new technology, building and site improvements, geothermal energy development and new heating, ventilating and air cooling systems for many of district's aging school buildings.

The levy vote authorized collecting $5.98 million per year in property tax assessments for 10 years, beginning in fiscal year 2011, which starts July 1.

Wednesday's brief court hearing followed an earlier hearing on April 19 when several Blaine County residents, including Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich, testified against the school district plan. At the earlier hearing, Elgee gave Willich two weeks to file a formal objection to the plan after Willich said he was going try to solicit the support of the Sun Valley City Council.

Willich's deadline expired Monday with no objection filed.

"Within that first week we did a review of it and decided not to file," Willich said in an interview. "The city attorney reviewed it and said the levy already passed, it was a done deal and you'd never get anywhere with it.

"I'm still not OK with the way they went about this, but there's nothing that can be done."

Willich said the district should have made its intentions about borrowing on future levy funds clear to the public prior to the election.

"They hustled that thing perfectly," he said. "Their strategy was flawless. I think the taxpayers in Blaine County got maneuvered. They knew all along they were going to look to the judge to spend this money."

Nonetheless, Willich said the economic plan laid out by the district is a good one.

"Of course you're going to save money," he said. "Everything they're doing is correct. It's just that they hustled the thing."

Barber denied Willich's accusation.

"We're trying to do what's right for the kids and we don't feel like we hustled anybody," Barber said. "And I don't think the judge feels that way and he looked at the whole process."

District Business Manger Mike Chatterton estimates that the district will save $4.7 million by spending levy funds now when construction costs and interest rates are lower than usual and when federal economic stimulus programs are available.

"I think three years from now we'll look back on this and see that we made a good move," Chatterton said.

Terry Smith: tsmith@mtexpress.com




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