Friday, December 31, 2010

Looking out 129,600 degrees

Some conflict can be healthy, even productive.


What one characteristic might define a year? Looking back at 2010, from my vantage point as chair of the Blaine County Commission, it was the uncertainty woven throughout the fabric of this community.

The year began with us wondering how we lost not just electrical power on a cold Christmas Day in 2009, but communications and our self-assurance too. 2010 ends with our national economy somewhat improved, yet locally a mixed sense lingers about whether we are "over the hump" or still climbing it. Our county faces many issues and unanswered questions. Thus, it is impossible to think of what happened in 2010 without thinking of what that may mean for 2011.

As for the power outage, we learned that the main supply lines into Blaine County are old and/or inadequate to meet current needs, let alone future needs. Will Idaho Power overhaul and build new service lines? The answer is yes, though one of the two proposed lines—from the Hailey substation north—remains controversial.

True to our community's reputation for being results-oriented, folks are busy exploring ways to reduce energy consumption and thus the strain on existing lines and our environment. Blaine County, for its part, put new rules in place in 2010 governing installation of wind and solar generating facilities and secured grants for home energy audits and retrofits. In 2011, we'll consider new green building codes on the recommendations of BuildSmart, a citizens advisory board. Our cities are doing the same kinds of things. Still, the most certain thing you can do to minimize the risks of power (and phone) failures is to be prepared with the supplies you need to wait it out.

Blaine County began planning for the current fiscal year (begun in October 2010) with no idea how far property values would decline or what state revenue-sharing—a significant portion of local government revenue—would look like. As spring approached, state revenues were down nearly 8 percent from fiscal 2009 levels. By the time we were ready to set a budget in early August, we learned that 2010 property values (based on calendar year 2009 sales) had dropped about 11 percent overall.

The county would need to reconsider its strategic objectives—how to meet its service obligations and respond to this darkening picture. Among other measures, the county left vacancies unfilled and froze employee salaries for a second year in a row. We put to voters whether to continue to subsidize our most significant non-statutory expense, the Blaine Manor nursing home. We stood ready to adjust the county's budget accordingly should the measure fail at the late-August special election. Voters agreed to support Blaine Manor—and our vulnerable senior and disabled populations—for three years with a special two-year levy override. The provision of other county services was stabilized.

2010 imbued two other major issues with more than their share of uncertainty: the local economy and a replacement airport. 2010 saw many businesses close and the value of distressed property—in foreclosure or pending foreclosure—rise to more than 1 percent of total county valuation, with even more teetering at the brink, according to Windermere Real Estate. At the same time, however, real estate sales showed significant improvement over 2009. More real estate is available at the lower end of the market, but prices appear more stable at the upper end of the market. Does that reflect the national pattern of increasing separation between the upper and lower economic ends of society?

We need to be very careful here. Many local people have lost their jobs and unemployment is stubbornly high. Long term, Blaine County remains very expensive for working people. Our so-called living wage, what a person or family needs to earn to live here, is the state's highest. Food, housing and medical services assistance, including mental health, will remain significant public policy challenges through 2011. These issues will challenge us locally and they will test the state of Idaho too.

This highlights why such a tremendous amount of energy was expended in 2010 debating how to bring back our local economy. Plenty of heat was generated around marketing Blaine County and the Sun Valley brand. Those efforts may be back on track. More importantly, in my view, Sustain Blaine and others are getting a handle on economic stabilization and diversification. Surely, if we've learned one lesson from the downturn, it is that over-reliance on too few economic sectors, as was the trend leading into 2007, is dangerously risky.

Finally, let me say that when 2010 began, the replacement airport project was one of the most controversial issues on the county agenda. The questions being asked were fundamental: Who would run the project and how? Who would determine whether it was affordable, how we would pay for it or whether it would ever be built? And how would we get all the credible information needed to make these decisions? As the year closes, people increasingly view a new, more reliable airport as an important, even necessary economic revitalization measure.

As 2011 dawns, I will report that Blaine County and Hailey, Friedman's co-owners, are very close to a mutually acceptable, amended joint powers agreement that will establish roles and responsibilities for project governance (subject to FAA support). Given the County Commission's prominent role, a sense has emerged that the whole community will have a voice in this project. Also, the Airport Advisory Committee's efforts at addressing non-FAA reimbursable expenses is progressing. Now, we know that February and May 2011 are critical points in the project timeline, when we will receive updated project cost information and get our first look at the draft environmental impact statement, respectively.

One sure thing about uncertainty: It leads to conflict. Some conflict can be healthy, even productive. One reason we enter 2011 with a more optimistic outlook than 2010 is that Blaine County's and America's natural and human resources are the world's finest. If we sustain and nurture them wisely, if we remain alert to what is occurring in the world (360 degrees by 360 degrees) and if we support one another in our endeavors, we will find it possible to achieve our goals as a community and a nation.


Larry Schoen is chairman of the three-member Blaine County Board of Commissioners.

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