Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Itís legal but is it right?

Ketchum URA is independent from the city, but the City Council and mayor serve as its board

Express Staff Writer

Randy Hall, top Craig Eckels, bottom

Even though an urban renewal agency is completely independent of the city government, Ketchum's City Council and mayor also run the URA and decide how each dollar of the approximately $500,000 in annual revenue from property taxes is spent.

A city creates a URA to rehabilitate deteriorating areas and promote development of barren properties within its limits. Any development within the URA will increase property-tax collections because of improved property values. This increase is handed over to the URA instead of being split among the city, county, school district and other taxing districts. The URA then puts the money back into URA areas by creating infrastructure to promote more development. But before any of this can be done, the city needs to appoint a URA board, which can include anyone living in the city.

Idaho URA law explicitly allows city leaders to "appoint and designate itself" to the URA board, which Ketchum's mayor and council did in 2006 when founding its URA. The fact that it's technically legal hasn't dissuaded several residents from repeatedly asserting that the mayor and council's intermingling of duties is creating a shady conflict.

Idaho law states that when city leaders are convened and meeting as the URA, they need to "act as an arm of state government, entirely separate and distinct from the municipality."

Bellevue Planning Director Craig Eckles has worked with several URAs throughout the state and claims that acting "entirely separate" from the city is impossible when the same people are making the decisions for both. For example, Eckles was a city councilman in Star and also a planning and zoning commissioner at the same time, which is also legal.

"If I approved something on the P&Z, why would I not approve it on the council?" he asked.

Eckles said the situation is no different for URAs.

"It works better if you have a pretty much separated board," he said. "It's a lot cleaner."

In that case, the appearance of scandal is averted, which prompted Heyburn Mayor George Anderson to not put the City Council on Heyburn's URA board, just now being created. Heyburn is 40 miles east of Twin Falls.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't even ask them," Armstrong said of the City Council, adding that he thought they'd want to serve as the URA board. "But it would take a real good council person to not sway things. I'm not saying we don't have good council members, but this is a better way to go."

Anderson has instead recommended a banker, business manager, financial officer, insurance broker and retired city leader to the URA board.


Even though Heyburn hasn't put one serving city leader on its URA board, other Idaho cities have councilmen on their boards or a mix of councilman and residents, according to Melinda Anderson, member of the Twin Falls URA board and the Southern Idaho Economic Development Organization.

She said a statewide database doesn't exist showing all the cities that have URAs or categorizing their leaderships, but council members on URA boards isn't "uncommon."

Anderson said SEIDO, as it's commonly called, is working in a collaborative effort with south-central Idaho cities and counties to create URAs across the region. Anderson said the Twin Falls URA board is comprised of seven citizens appointed by the mayor and City Council.

"It's very productive," she said. "We (the URA and city) work very well together."

But, she said, that's not to say it's the only way.

Eckles said that when Bellevue started its URA in 2007, the City Council appointed itself to the board. However, he said, the plan was always to shift away from council board members. He said the URA now consists of the entire six-member City Council, but three community members have been added. A nine-member URA board is the largest the state allows.

Ketchum's URA is now moving in that direction.

Ketchum Mayor and URA Chair Randy Hall has mentioned in recent months that he wants to add two community members to the board without removing any of the four council members or mayor.

"I've always had an eye on expanding it beyond the council," he said in an interview.

Hall said that's being done to include some of the community's key "intellectual talents" into the URA board. He said the creation of a little separation between the URA and city is a "collateral" benefit. Hall said he has been interviewing potential board members, but the recommendations haven't yet been named.

"I had to put it on the backburner while we navigated our way through the marketing board and grocery issues facing the city," he said.

Hall said he would now resume the search and present his two choices in a month or so.

Trevon Milliard:

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