Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Budget critics call for capital improvements

Public hearing yields many ques-tions, some answers


By GREGORY FOLEY
Express Staff Writer

In a sometimes-tense, sometimes-awkward public hearing this week, a former mayor, a former City Council member and a high-profile member of the business community challenged Ketchum?s elected leaders to spend more money on long-deferred capital improvements.

The statements came Monday, Aug. 16, after Ketchum Mayor Ed Simon and three members of the City Council invited the public to comment on the city?s proposed 2004-2005 budget. Councilwoman Christina Potters was absent.

Jerry Seiffert, mayor of Ketchum for 12 years in the 1970s and 1980s, told council members they need to be more ?aggressive? in funding public programs.


?The budget, in fact, may be too small,? Seiffert said. ?To meet the civil needs of the city ? you?re gonna have to spend some money.?

Maurice Charlat, who served on the council from 2000 to 2004, asked why the city has not included in the budget a plan to install sidewalks and lighting in the downtown core.

Pam Morris, publisher of the Idaho Mountain Express, posed a series of detailed questions about the city?s proposed expenses, including several that focused on the city?s allocations?or lack thereof-for capital improvements.

During moments of silence as the questions were pondered, Simon re-peatedly sought to minimize the time devoted to the hearing. On several occasions, the mayor said he pre-ferred to have City Administrator Ron LeBlanc respond to the questions after the meeting.

In the middle of it all, Ketchum resident Mickey Garcia took the floor, saying the budget ?doesn?t pass muster? and chastising Simon for not encouraging more public comment during a series of council meetings on the budget earlier in the summer.

?I wouldn?t be wasting your time now if you actually let me talk when you were dissecting the budget,? Garcia said.

In the end, only the four addressed the council. Their comments received a mix of responses, with both Simon and Councilman Baird Gourlay ultimately repeating the same words about the process of drafting and approving a city budget.

?This isn?t an easy job,? they said.

At issue Monday was Simon?s proposed $15.4 million spending plan for the 2004-2005 fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1.

The sum is not necessarily a direct reflection of the city?s planned expenses, largely because it includes a $2.3 million sales-tax fund that es-sentially duplicates sales-tax revenues in other city funds.

The proposed appropriations plan for the coming fiscal year includes approximately $9.65 million directly related to covering the costs of city operations, including the water and wastewater departments.

The water and wastewater depart-ments are operated like businesses, funded through revenues they collect.

At the core of the spending plan is the city?s general fund, which covers all of the city?s costs of general operations, including all city-government departments except water and sewer.

The general fund budget is balanced, with projected revenues of $7,915,000 equaling proposed ex-penses.

The city is planning to assert a standard-allowance property-tax increase of 3 percent, as well as a 15 percent increase in wastewater treat-ment fees.

LeBlanc said the general fund ?includes a bare-bones budget in each department? and uses about 65 per-cent of its revenues to pay employee wages and benefits. He noted that the budget anticipates that the city will have only $75,000 of discretionary funds in the coming fiscal year to spend on capital-improvement proj-ects.

LeBlanc stressed that the city has succeeded in balancing revenues and expenses, after using reserve funds in six of the last 11 years to balance the budget.

?We finally got that equilibrium,? he said.

However, Morris, Charlat and Seiffert all suggested that the city is not planning adequately to finance a long list of capital improvements that city officials and residents have identified.

?What I sometimes feel is, there has not been enough will,? Seiffert said, encouraging council members to consider employing bond issues or establishing local-improvement districts.

Councilwoman Terry Tracy, before admitting that she ?probably does not understand three-quarters? of the budget, responded by saying she wants to be careful not to overtax Ketchum residents.

Council President Randy Hall acknowledged the problem but also sought to look at the budget?s positive side.

?Something?s happened here that hasn?t happened in a while,? he said. ?We?ve got a balanced budget.?

The council will be asked to approve the budget at their Tuesday, Sept. 7 meeting.




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