Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Sun Valley mulls budget, priorities

Council members, external contracting entities provide thoughts on 2013 expenditures

Express Staff Writer

Bob Youngman

Planning for another lean budget year, perhaps with even lower revenue than the current fiscal year, the Sun Valley City Council is weighing just how conservative to be while still providing services to the resort community.

The city is in the initial stages of budget planning for fiscal 2013, which begins Oct. 1.

Council members on May 16 and 17 discussed revenue assumptions and expenditure priorities, and heard from multiple external contracting organizations, which presented information in support of their contract requests.

"Staff is looking for direction from council, what to put in the budget," said Virginia Egger, interim executive assistant to the mayor. "These external contracts really belong to City Council in terms of policy."

The council is expecting tough decisions during the planning process this summer.

"I would like to see how we as a city can be more efficient with the money that we have," said Councilwoman Michelle Griffith. "My inclination, quite frankly, would be to look for savings in our city operating budget rather than for contracts for services."

Mayor Dewayne Briscoe said he advised city staff to prepare to operate with leaner budgets in case reductions to department funding are made.

Councilman Bob Youngman said the city should prepare not just for flat revenue projections but for downward adjustments.

"I think we should work with a 5 percent reduction in revenue as a baseline and see where we go from there," he said. "There's no indication the economy's going to pick up. I don't expect our revenues to be flat. I expect them to go down. And I think we ought to be prepared to accommodate that, and attempt to accommodate that without increasing real estate taxes if we can."

"You will not attain economy without a challenge," he added.

The city's local-option tax revenues are coming in under estimates, prompting city leaders to be even more cautious for budget planning.

"It's surprising to see the local-option tax not even flat at this point," Egger said.

Councilman Nils Ribi said he was not in favor of recouping the 3 percent property tax increase cities are allowed under state law. If a city opts out of the increase one year, it can take it, along with a current year's increase, the next budget year.

"We made the commitment not to raise them and I think we stick with that," he said.

Who wants what

The Ketchum Parks and Recreation Department is seeking $30,000 from Sun Valley, or 3 percent of the department's total budget.

Parks & Rec Director Jen Smith said participation by Sun Valley residents in each of the department's programs ranges between 6.4 and 20 percent. John Kearney, recreation supervisor, said the department's summer programs last year drew about 11 percent of participants from Sun Valley, 28 percent from Hailey, 35 to 40 percent from Ketchum, and the rest from Bellevue and out of town.

"Sun Valley does not have a recreation program nor do they have park space for their visitors," he said.

"Our programs are quite affordable," he added, "and we run a pretty good program as well."

Sun Valley contributed $20,000 to the department for fiscal 2012 and $30,000 in fiscal 2011.

Blaine County Housing Authority Executive Director David Patrie requested $12,000.

"Providing safe housing for your constituents is a government function," he said, adding that local governments throughout the area and around the country take on that function.

He said the authority focuses on stewardship of housing, rather than development. It also determines whom the housing will fit and prepares people for homeownership.

"Once the asset's there, you have to ensure that it's being used for what it was intended to be used for," he said. "There's a compliance aspect to it. And then you want to preserve that asset once you have it as a community asset."

Fly Sun Valley Alliance, a nonprofit that aims to maintain and enhance air service to the Sun Valley area, is seeking $38,000 from Sun Valley. For fiscal 2012, the city gave $20,000.

According to passenger surveys completed last year, about 80 percent of all passengers using Friedman Memorial Airport are visitors and/or second home owners, said Executive Director Carol Waller. About 23 percent are full-time residents.

"A really key point is 75 percent said the availability of flights was important-to-critical in their decision to visit Sun Valley," she said.

Waller said keeping that service means convenience for residents, second home owners, business commuters and visitors, maintaining property values and providing a strong tax base for city services and infrastructure.

According to Fly Sun Valley Alliance's data, the downturn in the economy hit air service hard.

"We lost a major amount of seats and a corresponding amount of emplanements," she said.

She said that between 2003, the peak, and 2011, the valley lost almost half of its available seats and a third of emplanements.

Other, competing resorts have been more aggressive in bringing in air service, she added.

"Nonstop flights drive business and drive tourism," she said. "We hope that the city of Sun Valley sees the wisdom and return on investment for this air service program."

Youngman figured that request is about $12 per taxpayer in Sun Valley, or $38 per voter in Sun Valley.

"It's not a lot of money to ask for to ensure that we have the structure in place to make sure that what we have now will exist in the future," he said. "My concern is the sustainability of it."

Jason Miller, executive director of Mountain Rides, asked for $300,000, a return to fiscal 2011 funding levels. For fiscal 2012, the city contributed $275,000.

"This is always a bit of a balancing act in terms of understanding what each municipality's needs are, what we believe the demand is and what we believe we can fund," he said.

Representatives from Sustain Blaine, a countywide economic development organization, are seeking $10,000 from Sun Valley.

In response to the various presentations, Youngman expressed some support for the organizations' missions, but dissatisfaction with their structure.

"It's totally dependent on the group of characters up here," he said. "That's not a sustainable model. It doesn't encourage good people to stick around. It doesn't lead to long-term strategic plans. So, to the extent to which that group of organizations get together and figure out how to have a defined revenue stream that's on a multi-year basis, that's really going to define the success of all of those operations."

He said that eventually he would withdraw his support for them if they don't create sustainable models with dedicated revenue streams.

"The system is flawed," he said.

The next budget work session is scheduled for June 4.

Rebecca Meany:

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