Overcoming the learning curve

Photos by Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com Mayor Rebecca Casper listens to a discussion on a day care ordinance at an Idaho Falls City Council work session Monday afternoon. Casper and new council members Dee Whittier, bottom left, Ed Marohn, bottom center, Barbara Ehardt, bottom right, were sworn in Jan. 9. Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com

It’s almost time to take off the training wheels.

In a little more than five months since a new Idaho Falls mayor and three new City Council members took office, some of the city’s biggest challenges are approaching.

City leaders said the early months of 2014 have been spent overcoming the “learning curve” of newly elected officials, but they soon will tackle some of their biggest practical challenges: a tight budget and several major infrastructure projects.

“These first five months have been very much a learning time,” said Mayor Rebecca Casper.

Freshman Councilwoman Barbara Ehardt thinks new council members are making good progress.

“I feel great about how things have gone,” said Ehardt. “There has been just an exorbitant amount of information to take in and learn, but that was expected.”

Redefining roles

Since her election, Casper has been seeking to draw a bright line between the daily administration of city business and the council’s legislative role.

“It’s a bit of a struggle, because you can’t just walk in the door and change everything all at once … We’re slowly redefining roles.” she said.

Casper said she sees major benefits in clearly defining the respective roles of the mayor and the City Council.

“By design, the system we’ve been left with leaves (the council) with legislation, with budgeting and with oversight,” Casper said. “It leaves the mayor’s office with administration. If we can draw that line, then it actually frees them up from having to carry the administrative load … Now they have the opportunity to spend their energy on crafting better ordinances or doing the oversight.”

Councilwoman Sharon Parry, who was first elected in 2007, said she felt that the transition toward a new role for the council has left it without information needed to make good decisions.

“There is an administrative side and a legislative side,” she said. “The problem that we’re running up against currently is that there is a dearth … of information.”

Parry said she thought discussions of plans for Hitt Road were one area where the Council hasn’t been kept adequately up to date, other than a meeting in early May.

“We had a very full and healthy discussion (in early May),” she said. “I haven’t heard a thing since. Just a lot of rumors.”

Freshman Councilman Dee Whittier said he had seen “some hiccups in communications” during his initial months on the council, but he did not think they were highly problematic.

“I haven’t seen, from my perspective, any major disagreements,” he said.

Councilman Thomas Hally said it was expected for the roles of the two branches of city government to be altered after the election.

“Any time you have a change in leadership style it requires adaptation,” he said.

Council President Michael Lehto, who has served alongside three mayors, said he thought relations between the mayor and the council are healthy.

“Everyone approaches it a bit different, and I think Mayor Casper … has done quite a good job of listening,” he said.

The budget looms

The city faces a potentially difficult budget year.

Hally, who was first elected in 2003, said he expects it to be the most difficult of his time on the Council, driven by “year after year after year of recession.”

Thane Sparks, city controller, said property tax revenue for the city has been essentially flat for the past five years while demands on city services funded by those taxes have steadily increased. This year, he said, the city’s total valuation — the value of all taxable property in the city — is slightly down.

Last year to pay for some infrastructure projects, the Council drew down savings the city had retained in its general fund. The city has drawn those savings down by just under $1 million.

Sparks said cities are recommended to keep three months of operating funds saved in the general fund, and those savings generally reach their lowest point in December, when property tax revenue is not coming in.

Sparks said the city is likely to have $9 million in reserves by the end of the year. In 2010 there were $10.4 million in reserves.

Sparks said the city likely will get close to drawing down its reserves close to the recommended minimum, but not below it.

“We’re trending to be OK,” he said.

But Hally expressed stronger concerns.

“We’re running out of capacity to take money out of reserves, and the street capital improvement fund, we’ve drained,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough year.”

Lehto said the council will be more focused this year on making necessary budget cuts than it was last year.

“Last year not being able to make the hard cuts and dipping into reserves — I thought that could have been handled a bit better,” he said. “Those cuts that will be looked at this year will be looked at with a bigger microscope.”

The council will hold several budget workshops beginning July 7, and is expected to pass a final budget in late August. This year, the total budget was around $186 million, with the bulk of that being devoted to municipal utilities. The general fund was around $39 million.

Infrastructure

Running low on reserves complicates the process of trying to solve infrastructure problems.

“We’ve only been able to accomplish (big projects) because of our reserves,” Hally said, citing the examples of the D Street underpass and improvements to Hitt Road between First Street and 17th Street.

Hally said there is a light at the end of the tunnel, however.

“We know that increases in the valuation are coming,” he said. “Boise is starting to go up fairly significantly, so we expect that to happen here. But that doesn’t help us with this year’s budget. You can’t spend what you don’t have.”

Freshman Councilman Ed Marohn said he does not foresee this year’s budget being “more difficult than any other year.”

“It’s a challenge every year,” he said. “The big issues or concerns that may come up will be: How do we support the infrastructure in Idaho Falls?”

Several big-ticket items are pressing, including dealing with a cracked floor at firehouse No. 1, which has left it unable to house fire engines. Building a replacement station was estimated to cost $2.5 million.

“That might have to be looked at on a phased approach — basically put aside some money this year, next year and maybe a third year — and I know that won’t be popular,” Lehto said.

Seeking a final agreement with Ammon over cost sharing on improvements to Hitt Road south of Sunnyside Road also is made more difficult by the potential budget crunch.

“That’s part of what is making Hitt Road a big concern, because we don’t have a big pile of cash available to us to seize opportunities,” Casper said.

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