Candidates for the Legislature and Blaine County elected positions provided lively and informative discussion during the Idaho Mountain Express’ Pizza and Politics forum at Wood River High School on Wednesday evening.
Ten candidates put themselves on the firing line before a crowd of about 150 people packed into the school’s Distance Learning Lab. They answered questions posed by Idaho Mountain Express reporters, the public and each other.
Blaine County treasurer
Appeals for voter support from the two candidates for Blaine County treasurer were made on the basis of experience and competence by incumbent Vicki Heuett and a promise of innovation and more transparency by challenger John David Davidson.
Part of the treasurer’s job is to invest county funds that are not immediately needed to pay bills. Davidson contended that it is difficult for the public, and, in fact, the county commissioners, to get a clear statement of the county’s investments. He said that if elected, he would provide that information in a transparent manner.
During public questions, former County Commissioner Sarah Michael said that during her time in office, she did not get “meaningful” reports from Heuett’s office.
“Ms. Michael could have come into my office and I would have shown her every investment that I had,” Heuett countered.
Davidson also said he would create an investment advisory committee and work with the commissioners to create investment goals and guidelines. In a later interview, Davidson said he’d like to add a provision stating what portion of the county’s funds can be placed in what kinds of investments.
During the forum, Davidson challenged Heuett’s statement that the county had never lost money on its investments during her tenure. He pointed to an item in the county’s fiscal 2013 audit stating a loss of $196,067 on “investment earnings” and an “unrealized market loss on investments” of $331,087. He asked Heuett if she had reported those losses to the county commissioners. She said she made quarterly reports.
In an interview, outside auditor Curtis Stocker, of Rupert, Idaho,-based accounting firm Condie Stocker & Associates, said the losses stated in the audit were only paper losses, the result of a rise in interest rates on the day the audit was performed. He said that rise temporarily decreased the value of the county’s holdings.
Heuett said that given the restrictions of state code and county ordinances, “we are making the best possible return on our investments.”
She asked voters to consider her 40 years of experience in the Treasurer’s Office.
“I have proven leadership in managing my department of three [people,]” she said.
In response to a question about adopting new technologies, Davidson said he’d like to set aside part of the office’s budget to be able to buy useful new items as soon as they become available.
Heuett pointed to her decision to adopt electronic billing for property tax payments and remote deposits to begin earning interest as soon as possible.
Incumbent Larry Schoen, a Democrat, and challenger Randy Patterson, a Republican, offered voters a clear choice of ideologies for the District 1 county commissioners seat, a four-year term.
“You have an opportunity to vote for a commissioner that will keep your taxes low. I believe that I am that commissioner,” Patterson said.
“My opponent’s platform is, ‘Vote for me and I’ll work less for you,’” Schoen said.
Schoen told the audience that he was running on his record.
“I have worked very hard on your behalf for the past eight years,” he said. “I’ve been willing to be a leader. I’ve been willing to take risks and I’ve been willing to make tough decisions.”
Patterson emphasized his long ties to the community.
“I understand the diversity of the people here,” he said. “I grew up here.”
In response to a question from the audience, Patterson said he would like to freeze and if possible reduce the county commissioners’ salaries. He said he does not believe the county needs both a full-time county administrator and three full-time commissioners.
“We need to decide which one we want,” he said.
Schoen, however, said the county administrator had addressed issues that have saved taxpayers money.
“This is a very dynamic and engaged community,” he said. “The demands on the commissioners are very high.”
Asked what role the commissioners should play in stimulating economic growth, Patterson pointed primarily to setting property taxes, which he said would help determine whether businesses want to locate here. Schoen said the county has some of the lowest property tax rates in Idaho. He said the commissioners need to work with agencies and private entities to diversify the economy, though he did not say how (responses were limited to 30 seconds).
When the candidates were asked by the Idaho Mountain Express whether they would favor raising more money locally to fund road maintenance or reducing road services if the state does not raise its gas tax, Schoen said he would like to put the question on the ballot again for voters to decide. Patterson ducked the question, saying only that he would lobby the Legislature to raise the gas tax.
Patterson asked Schoen how much money was spent by the county on processing an application for $1.1 million from the Land, Water and Wildlife fund before the Idaho Department of Fish and Game withdrew it due to too many stipulations placed on it by the county. Schoen did not provide a specific figure, but said the Land, Water and Wildlife board needed to ensure that public money was well accounted for.
In an interview, Department of Fish and Game spokesman Mike Keckler said that as far as he knows, the department withdrew its request to help fund its purchase of Rock Creek Ranch in order to expedite the process, not because of a concern about conditions imposed by the county.
Schoen asked Patterson how he would make up the loss to the county budget if he did not believe in government grants, a statement that he attributed to Patterson when, as mayor of Carey, he declined a federal grant to improve energy efficiency in homes. Patterson said he turned down the grant because of a requirement that homeowners would have to bring their properties up to government standards before they could sell them.
“There’s always strings attached to government grants,” he said.