Friday, August 6, 2010

Levy accomplished

County deficit projected to not exceed $220,000

Express Staff Writer

Hailey residents cast their votes at the Community Campus during the Blaine Manor levy special election Tuesday. More than 86 percent of Hailey voters cast votes in favor of the levy to fund the skilled-nursing facility, a more favorable response than in any other part of the county.

The overall results of the Blaine Manor levy election didn't come as a surprise to County Commissioner Tom Bowman—but, he says, the "huge" margin of victory did.

"In the back of my mind, I thought it would be 60 to 70 percent [in favor]," he said.

County residents voted 83 percent in favor of the proposed two-year levy on Tuesday, authorizing an additional $1.99 million in property taxes to be collected to cover the Hailey skilled-nursing facility's annual budget shortfall. For the first year, the levy will add an estimated $9.40 in extra taxes for each $100,000 in assessed property value.

To pass, the proposed levy needed approval by a simple majority of more than 50 percent.

Blaine County Clerk JoLynn Drage said the results were a complete surprise to her.

"I didn't have a clue what to expect," she said. "I just can't get a feel for how people are going to vote."

The numbers have yet to be finalized by county commissioners, who will canvass the election results on Monday, Aug. 9. However, Bowman confirmed Wednesday that the results will have an impact on the county's 2010-2011 budget.

"We can be confident that the commissioners will not take the allowed 3 percent increase in property tax," he said.

Both Bowman and Schoen stated repeatedly during budget meetings that if the levy passed, they would vote against any standard yearly raise in county property taxes. The pledge was backed by the commission's Monday vote not to raise ambulance district property taxes by the allowable 3 percent.

Drage said Wednesday that the specific impact of the election results on the budget won't be known until budget hearings later this month. Bowman, however, said that preliminary numbers predict the county will run a maximum deficit of $220,000. This number is pending final decisions on expenses such as a new human resources position, as well as updated revenue projections.

Despite the decidedly favorable response, voter turnout was relatively low. Of the nearly 12,000 registered voters in the county, just under 16 percent participated in the election.

A total of 1,890 votes were cast throughout the county, with 1,577 voters (83.5 percent) casting ballots in favor of the levy, while 312 (16.5 percent) voted against it.

Leslie Londos, of the county recorder's office, said a low turnout is not unusual for special elections. Though almost 90 percent of the county voted in the 2008 general election, that was highly unusual, she said. That election included races for U.S. president, Blaine County sheriff and two seats on the County Commission.

The Blaine Manor election was scheduled for August rather than November in order to make sure the levy could be entered on this year's tax rolls. If the election had been held in November, Bowman said, it would have delayed funding for Blaine Manor for a full year. Taxpayers could notice a difference in their bills as early as December.

The goal of the levy is to keep the facility open until early 2014, when a new, private facility, Croy Canyon Ranch, is projected to open west of Hailey. The levy amount is more than the average estimated $600,000 per year that Blaine County has spent to cover Blaine Manor's operating deficit since 2001, as it will be used over the course of three years. The county could not take a tax levy for a third year.

Though rising costs have plagued Blaine Manor for years, Director of Finances Stephanie Jaskowski said the levy funds should be adequate to balance the budget.

"I think that's a realistic figure," she said. "We will certainly endeavor to economize wherever possible, but we always have."

Even if the funds fall short of covering the facility's expenses until 2014, Bowman said voters wouldn't have to pay the price.

"We won't go back to the voters for anything," he said. Instead, the commissioners would make other cuts to make up the difference, Bowman said.

Jaskowski said such a situation was not likely, as the staff at the manor feels they have a responsibility to be good stewards of the tax-supported funding it receives.

"This is the community's way of saying, 'Yes, we will support these people,'" she said. "None of the staff has ever taken this lightly."

As for the results, Jaskowski said the levy's approval was not a shock.

"I had faith in the community that they would do the right thing," she said.

Katherine Wutz:

How did your area vote?

While all precincts voted in favor of the levy, some areas were more supportive than others. Here are the results broken down by voting area, sorted by number of voters:

Hailey: 733 votes, 635 (86.8 percent) in favor, 97 (13.2 percent) against.

Ketchum: 347 votes, 287 (82.7 percent) in favor, 60 (17.3 percent) against.

Bellevue: 225 votes, 193 (85.8 percent) in favor, 32 (14.2 percent) against.

Sun Valley: 206 votes, 159 (77.2 percent) in favor, 47 (22.8 percent) against.

Carey: 106 votes, 85 (80.2 percent) in favor, 21 (19.8 percent) against.

Picabo: 66 voters, 46 (69.7 percent) in favor, 20 (30.3 percent) against.

Carey had the highest voter turnout, at 22.5 percent, while Ketchum had the lowest, at 12.9 percent.

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