The Bellevue Elementary School library was filled to capacity Thursday night with about 60 citizens, politicians, students and protesters for the Pizza & Politics candidates forum hosted by the Idaho Mountain Express. Candidate presentations and question-and-answer periods shed light on potential prospects for revitalizing the city's downtown core and raising public enthusiasm for getting the city back on its feet financially.
The event also scared up some ghosts from the past that could still be very much on the minds of voters, including allegations of past fiscal irresponsibility.
Times are tough in Bellevue. The recession has stifled growth and economic activity. Businesses have closed and homes and automobiles have been abandoned in the city.
Meanwhile, sewer rates are set to rise 4 percent each year to pay for a $7.5 million wastewater treatment plant built several years ago in anticipation of robust growth and new city service hook-ups that would have helped pay for it.
Despite an abundance of civic pride and hard-working residents, Bellevue's future looks less promising than it did a few years ago. Voters will go to the polls on Nov. 8 to decide who they think can best lead the "Silver City with a Golden Heart" through these troubling times.
City Council veterans Tammy Eaton and Shaun Mahoney, who stepped down more than a year ago, are taking a run at getting back in the game, while incumbents Dave Hattula and Janet Duffy are making a case for what they claim are recent successes. Newcomer Amber Avila has also thrown her hat into the ring, basing her competence largely on her history of community volunteerism, a quality that was roundly applauded by all of the candidates.
Hattula and Duffy expressed pride in saving the city $80,000 by reviewing and switching a contract for law enforcement services to the Hailey Police Department, getting city staff back to full-time hours and funding city projects with "real revenue" rather than expectations of grants. (Before Hattula and Duffy took office, the previous council, which included Eaton and Mahoney, committed to the sewer plant in expectation of millions of dollars in federal assistance that never arrived.)
Eaton and Mahoney claimed that the sitting council has not been listening to the concerns of Bellevue residents and business leaders as it has moved toward a vote aimed at upgrading the Fire Department with a 10-year, $375,000 bond issue. They contended that citizens advisory committees should have been formed to advise the council on the bond issue and on police services.
"Because we represent the people, advisory boards are important," Eaton said.
Hattula said the bond was "the least" the city could do to help the Fire Department and that his council would continue to be "good stewards" of the city's funds.
"I don't think citizen advisory boards are necessary for every hot-button issue. Public meetings are the time for public input," said Hattula, who criticized Mahoney and Eaton for poor attendance records while they were on the council.
Mahoney and Eaton said the city had been struggling through the recession before they left office and fiscal restraint had always been a goal of city leaders.
"Bellevue has turned pennies into dollars for many years," Eaton said.
She said she is proud of her accomplishments, including the renovation of Memorial Park and various volunteer efforts she has spearheaded, including the upcoming Haunted Forest Halloween event.
Hattula accused Eaton and Mahoney of being "poor stewards" of city funds, having to slash funding of city departments by 30 percent in 2009 to keep it afloat.
"There are also numerous conflicts of interest that have not been discussed," he said, without identifying what the alleged conflicts were.
Hattula and Duffy, a former research scientist, said the new council has turned things around of late, trimming an already lean budget by reviewing contracts and launching a much-needed bond initiative to fund improvements at the dilapidated fire station.
Eaton alone recommended holding off on the fire bond until more information is available. Mahoney supported the bond vote, but said more information should be made available to the public. All candidates supported keeping the prospect open of one day consolidating in some form with other fire agencies in the valley.
Eaton also cast doubt upon the performance of the Hailey Police Department in providing a level of service on par with what the city had under the Blaine County Sheriff's Office.
"I can't say it's apples to apples," she said.
Hattula defended the performance of the Hailey Police Department and the bond process.
"There will be plenty of information about the bond available before the vote," he said. "The vote is the most public input possible."
A group of six witches and goblins, all volunteers for the upcoming Haunted Forest fundraising event for the Howard Preserve, attended in costume to protest the unwillingness last week of Hattula and others on the council to waive park fees for the popular community event, organized by Eaton four years ago.
Hattula said Eaton had not supplied accounting records associated with the event. Florence Blanchard, a member of one beneficiary organization, Friends of the Howard Preserve, reported to the Idaho Mountain Express last week that the event had brought $8,000 over the past three years to maintain the preserve.
"What have you done? What are you going to do?" asked an enraged Jon Wilkes, a former city councilman, of Hattula and other council members who denied the waiver request.
Despite the outspoken support for, and credit taken by, volunteers at the event, Fire Department Capt. Trent Shoemaker called for city leaders to ramp up efforts to draw volunteer firefighters out of the woodwork.
"We have 11 volunteers and we need 50," Shoemaker said.
To increase business activity, the candidates all favored establishing some type of chamber of commerce, with or without the assistance of the Hailey chamber. Duffy stressed the need to create jobs in Bellevue.
There was also general agreement that the city had to find a way out of the exorbitant wastewater fees. Eaton and Mahoney advised linking sewer services with Hailey to use excess capacity at the new plant. Hattula and the others thought the city could only grow its way out of the problem by hooking up new businesses and homes and thereby dispersing the financial burden.
All candidates agreed that that meant drawing new development to the city. All candidates stressed the need for concentrating development in the city core, especially in the light-industrial zones. Eaton said siting a new development would depend on the application, and how much space is needed.
Regarding the airport relocation/expansion issue, candidates agreed that relocation would be best, but also said they would wait for a town meeting on Oct. 25 to gather more information on the issue.
One stark difference that was apparent between incumbent Janet Duffy and challenger Shaun Mahoney was brought to light while answering a question posed by Eaton: "Is there any difference between running a business and city?"
Mahoney said that basically they were the same.
"Both have checkbooks," he said.
Duffy answered that there is a "huge difference."
"With a business it's only your bottom line. With a city it's about every citizen," she said.
Tony Evans: email@example.com