Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ketchum weighs priorities

Economic slump offers chance to re-examine policies

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum City Council members, from left, Larry Helzel, Baird Gourlay, Curtis Kemp and Nina Jonas discuss city priorities with Mayor Randy Hall, center, and other city officials. Photo by Willy Cook

In economic downturns, should cities try to keep activity low and ride out the financial slump? Or should they take the opportunity of a slower pace to review fundamentals such as ordinances and concepts such as government's role in economic development and affordable housing?

The Ketchum City Council, Planning and Zoning Commission and city staff discussed matters from the minute to the major during a half-day retreat and goal-setting session on Friday, July 1. City officials reviewed past priorities, heard reports on their status and discussed goals for the coming fiscal year.

While priorities varied from person to person, one point was not in doubt.

"This is still going to be a year where we have austerity measures in place," said Mayor Randy Hall.

How to allocate scarce dollars, and how to generate additional funds, became the underlying theme.

While the city's fund balance is solid, City Administrator Gary Marks said, the economy is still sputtering, especially in sectors such as construction.

"If there is such a thing as a recovery right now, it's a split recovery," Marks said.

The city has a solid fund balance, he said, but that could change.

"Let's be cautious and aware that we are in a dynamic environment," he said.

Question marks include not only the economy but the Legislature. During the 2011 session, some legislators proposed cutting off funding to cities, believing no state money should go to cities, Marks said. Ketchum could lose $1.1 million, or 20 percent of the general fund, if lawmakers opted to strip municipalities of all state-allocated money.

"We're one of the healthiest cities in Idaho and it would devastate us," he said.

Hall noted that the city is losing money on uncollected local-option taxes, to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars, according to an audit performed recently. Uncollected taxes place an unfair burden on businesses that pay their taxes as required, Hall said, which amounts to a subsidy to other businesses.

"The option tax is not optional," Councilman Baird Gourlay said.

Getting noncompliant businesses to pay their share will be a focus in the coming months.

As another potential way to boost the contents of city coffers, Councilman Larry Helzel posed a philosophical question to the group.


"What is our responsibility as a government beyond keeping our head above water?" he asked.

Helzel proposed considering the formation of a master economic development group, combining the multiple city and county agencies into one. He estimated that Ketchum alone spends about $1.5 million each year to support organizations such as the Ketchum Community Development Corp., the Ketchum Urban Renewal Agency, Fly Sun Valley Alliance and others.

"There's a tremendous amount of duplication," he said.

He said a single agency wouldn't compete for the same dollars and would "speak with one voice" regarding economic development goals.

Councilwoman Nina Jonas agreed there was room for efficiency in how the community approaches problems.

"Shared responsibility equals no responsibility," she said.

She said "everyone's best intention is to be cooperative," but individual priorities often derail common goals.

"The net result is nothing," she said.

Helzel said the idea is "very, very conceptual," but Hall supported investigating it, initially through discussions with impacted boards of directors.

"The city of Ketchum has the economic clout and the ability to make this happen," Helzel said. "It's just the question of politically whether or not we want to go in this direction."

Councilman Curtis Kemp urged the council to consider what the impediments to development are and to find ways to overcome those. He also wants the city to examine its approach to affordable housing to see what if any ordinances should be changed to accommodate the resulting vision.

"Are we going to stick by a strict interpretation of existing codes or are we willing to relax those?" he asked.

Council members and P&Z commissioners placed high priority on re-examining the city's comprehensive plan, which is in the early stages of a complete update.

The P&Z commissioners, who have seen their agendas shrink as fewer people build, are placing more emphasis on the planning aspect of planning and zoning.

"Let's take advantage of this eye of the storm," said Commissioner Steve Cook. "The comp plan is a great tool. It's an asset."

Commissioners also are likely to take up the form-based code, wayfinding and riparian zone encroachment in the coming year.

Commissioner Rich Fabiano said the joint meeting between the council and commission was necessary in building and achieving goals.

"It's very important," said Commissioner Rich Fabiano. "It gives us input and direction."

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