BLACKFOOT — Mayor Marc Carroll and challenger Craig Stuart debated in an online forum Wednesday night that proved to be lively at times as they prepared for Blackfoot’s Nov. 30 runoff election.
The two appeared live from a studio in Idaho Falls. The debate was hosted by Bingham Healthcare.
Questions from local residents on a variety of topics were presented, and at times the intensity was turned up.
The sharpest display of that came during one of the last topics of the evening when the two were asked if they’d had any experience running an enterprise with million-dollar budgets.
Carroll mentioned that he retired in 2011 after almost 35 years of service with the INL, where he was a manager for 32 of his 35 years there. He said he’d managed groups of 10 people up to 340 people, with budgets of $300,000 up to $27 million and was responsible for more than 2 million square feet of building space for sewer, water systems, and fire departments.
“The depth of my range in management is very significant,” Carroll said.
“I do not have any experience running large enterprises with million dollar budgets,” Stuart answered. “I do have experience running businesses. As a business owner in Utah I got into Home Depot stores with products. That wasn’t an easy task. So I had to deal with a lot of people, a lot of procurement, a lot of purchasing, a lot of transportation involving hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“The mayor mentioned all of the great things he did at the INL. But we’re talking about the city, we’re talking about what you’ve done here or what you haven’t done. I’m in the race to find out why things aren’t as good as they can be. We’re not going to do sketchy things when I’m mayor and those things have happened in the past. It’s of record, we need to change some things.”
It was the second instance during the debate in which Stuart used the word “sketchy,” something which a Facebook group called Concerned Citizens of Blackfoot focused on in an online post and advertisement in the days leading up to the November municipal election, using a brief part of an audio recording taken from a Feb. 26, 2020, meeting with the Bingham County commissioners and Blackfoot city officials discussing an Area of Impact agreement in an effort to question Carroll’s methods.
“It’s interesting that Mr. Stuart brings up the word ‘sketchy,’” Carroll said. “He’s referring to a meeting that happened at the county commissioners’, one of our discussions to communicate. There was a recording of the meeting. County attorney Chase Hendricks was discussing documents and used the term ‘sketchy.’ Out of a 2 1/2-hour meeting, there was a minute and 30 second clip that Mr. Stuart’s cronies out in Groveland have been pushing and using the word ‘sketchy.’ I said ‘sketchy’ one time, echoing something that the county attorney had mentioned and now they’re saying everything I do is sketchy. That’s very offensive. Everything we do is out in the open, we comply 100 percent with all the Sunshine laws, not because of the law, because it’s the right thing.”
Further topics and responses from the debate are as follows.
“Density has a lot to do with it,” Stuart said. “Chubbuck is the same size as our city and yet their growth in the last 10 years has been about 14 percent higher than ours. We have no recreation. the mayor closed down the pool, there’s poor infrastructure with no fiber outside the city, we are the third highest in (property) taxes in the state. We need to make some changes there and it doesn’t seem like they’re happening.”
Carroll said the city 2010 population was 11,899 people, and the 2020 census was at 12,346.
“Anybody who travels in Blackfoot knows it’s a lot busier today than it was 3 to 5, 10 years ago. Traffic is terrible. We’ve had a lot of growth particularly in the last couple of years. We have $20 million worth of new construction, residential and commercial, in the last year. Blackfoot has gone through tremendous change in the last four years with regard to permitting and the number of houses being built, we have another 1,500 (residences) developers are talking about coming in to Blackfoot. They’ve already purchased the ground, we have new businesses coming to town.”
PLAN TO ATTRACT MORE BUSINESS
Carroll talked of a folder put together to help businesses understand Blackfoot and to understand different grants and different loan opportunities, passing out around 70 folders in the last two years. “Construction in Blackfoot is easier to accomplish than surrounding communities, it’s cheaper to hook up to utilities, they like dealing with city employees. Two new restaurants opened recently, two new manufacturing businesses are coming. We’re working on infrastructure needs for those businesses now.”
Stuart disputed Carroll’s comment that builders are loving to work with the city. “We don’t even have a building inspector, the state is hired to do that. Contractors are frustrated, they want a building inspector so they can get out right away without waiting two days. We need to create a recreation committee. It’s important to work with county and private enterprises for funding. We need to hire an economic developer and rejoin REDI (Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho), go for block grants. Grab it as we can get it, streamline and modernize business regulations.”
Carroll responded that it is true the city does not have a building inspector on staff. “We hire an inspector based on the value of permits issued each month, we get plumbing, electrical, mechanical inspection for the same money. Whatever money we collect in permits, we pay the state Division of Building Services 60 percent of that value. To hire a building inspector would cost about $120,000, we can’t afford that. There’s not money in permits to allow that.”
INFRASTRUCTURE/ RAILROAD OVERPASS/ UNDERPASS
Carroll said he met with Rep. Mike Simpson recently about needing a way to get around the railroad tracks blocking the east side from the west side. “He was excited when talking about an underpass or overpass, he said he could earmark $1.5-$2 million for Blackfoot for that project,” Carroll said. “The city has started on application, we won’t have a call for applications until late January. The money would allow for analysis of five different crossings. We will put together a citizen committee to help decide which one would be best and then turn engineers loose on putting together a package to put out for bid. Once we have a package it would be easier to get grant money to fund the project.”
“I know Mike Simpson and I know his website states specifically he does not support earmarks so I hope the mayor is telling the truth on this one,” Stuart said. “The mayor just brought this up the last couple of months and I’m wondering why is it coming up now? I do support this, my constant concern is how much are the city residents going to have to pay. It’s going to come out of a budget, taxpayers are probably going to be liable for some of this. but I do support it if we can figure out a way so taxpayers don’t have to come up with out-of-pocket money.” Stuart expressed doubts about city leadership being able to communicate with the railroad.
“I am doing everything I can to keep this campaign on the high road. I’m not going to accuse any challenger ... of not speaking truth or even not knowing what I’m talking about,” Carroll said. “I’ve been doing this for four years. Yes, I’ve dealt with the railroad. They are not easy to deal with. They have told us if we can get a project together and the funding together they can put as much as 10 percent into the project and that is the truth.”
PLAN TO UPGRADE EXISTING INFRASTRUCTURE
“Without fixing the current infrastructure, it’s damning to us,” Stuart said. “It’s going to destroy our city even worse than we’re at right now. Our streets are in terrible position, our sewers is the talk of the city. It’s hard to grow to be financially responsible without building our infrastructure. We need to hire an economic developer and rejoin REDI, we rely on them for assistance in block grants. We haven’t used one for 20 years so I just want to know why we haven’t used them.”
“Infrastructure takes plans,” Carroll said as he showed city plans for various areas projects. “You don’t get grants until you have an engineering plan. It’s taken us two years to get these documents ready. I’ve said before it took me two years to understand the mayor’s responsibilities. Each of the three challengers said, ‘It won’t take me two years to figure it out.’ That’s baloney. We have 14 departments who deal with a number of different regulatory agencies. You have to understand how that works. We have a number of grants working right now. We’re using block grants, I don’t know where you get that we haven’t used a block grant in 20 years. I’m very judicious in selecting which grants we use because every grant comes with strings. We have to be careful of those.”
“It won’t take me two years to figure this out,” Stuart replied. “The problem is I need to surround myself with people that know things I don’t know. I know that I can get people around me and we can talk and figure it out.”
Carroll said he spent a majority of volunteer time in youth sports. “Everybody I talk to says it works best if you have a volunteer organization that runs the youth activity. I don’t think we want to increase the taxes to take responsibility into the city to run youth sports. I do believe it’s the responsibility of the city to provide fields they play on. We provide soccer fields, we provide baseball fields, we help with softball. We did eliminate the pool because it was costing too much money, $450,000 a year. The community decided not to fund the bond which would have rebuilt the pool. The most expensive facility for a city to maintain is an indoor swimming pool. The second most expensive is an outdoor swimming pool. We wanted to turn the indoor pool into a rec center but the building is so far gone it would take $1.5 million to build it back to where it’s a safe facility.”
“The baseball fields are in terrible shape and I don’t know why,” Stuart said. “Let’s keep our kids out of trouble. We need to do something to create recreation for our people in this city. I’m passionate about recreation, I want to create a committee and explore options, use county and private funds. The mayor turned down a proposal last year for a rec center because it would be on county property. What difference does it make?”
Carroll asked Stuart what county property he turned down. Stuart said he was told it was on Airport Road. Carroll replied, “I’m sorry, I still don’t know what you’re talking about. I would love to get a rec center like the one in Pocatello, but we need to get $6 million to build it.” Carroll said a group of young men had approached him wanting the city to build it. “I don’t know that I turned it down, they didn’t have a piece of ground. No one has approached me with an idea on a specific piece of property.”
Stuart said he was quoted from a forum about eliminating the Blackfoot Police Department and contracting with the county for law enforcement. “I never made a statement about contracting the police department to the county.” The idea of the fire department becoming a volunteer fire department was mentioned, he said. “If the community wanted to talk about it I would be willing to talk about it. But I do not want an all volunteer fire department and I said nothing about combining the two police services. Both entities are doing a wonderful job.”
Carroll said when he came into office he found one ledger account that was $438,000 in the red, an accumulation over a number of years of shortfall in the county budget to operate ambulance services. He mentioned an ambulance service levy in residents’ tax bill, with that money going to the county. The BFD operates ambulance service throughout the county except for the northern part, going out as far as near Aberdeen. “We have a good agreement between the city and county operating ambulance services, a good agreement on both sides. I’m absolutely opposed to contracting out services.”
IMPROVING RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN COUNTY AND CITY
“I don’t think any relationship is fine where it’s at, we can always improve on it,” Carroll said. “You need discussion, both sides need to be able to sit down and talk. Between county commissioners and the mayor and the city council, that is what we’re committed to do but we’re all really busy and we don’t always have time to do that. The county and city operate on very thin budgets. We’ll continue talking.”
“There’s a big communication gap between the city and the county. It’s been going on for quite some time. Things that have been said that are sketchy, they are incorrect, they are wrong and we need to have some clarity with the county. The county’s willing to work with us. It’s been said that the far right wing of Groveland is financing my campaign, that’s not true. We live in Bingham County. We need to get along. We need to come to the table not 30 times, we need to come together a few times and make some decisions that will work with both the city and county. It’s not happening. There’s been a struggle beyond anything I can even comprehend. It is important that we work together.”
ANNEXATION AND TAXES
“I know the city needs money. We don’t plan,” Stuart said. “Blackfoot needs to grow. The one thing it doesn’t need to have is forced, reckless annexation. It’s not ethical. It needs to be done cooperatively. We should only annex incrementally and not land grab. Why would we bring more into the city when we can’t take care of our streets and sidewalks and sewers that we have?”
Carroll said county residents build just outside the city so they can take advantage of services and shopping and restaurants that are inside the city. “That’s not fair,” he said. “There is an estimated 40,000 people who come into the city every day. That’s wear and tear on the streets, that’s wear and tear on other infrastructure. Annexation is a way to build the tax base across a broad spectrum. It’s been tried to increase fees for people who don’t live in the city but it’s never worked. So annexation, that’s what all the other cities do.”
BID TO BUY NONPAREIL BUILDING FOR A CITY BUILDING
Carroll referred to a post about the issue on his Facebook mayor’s page before giving details. “The owner of Nonpareil approached one of the council members and said they would make a good deal to the city. We currently pay the county $300,00 per year for city police to be at the courthouse. We could cut that budget significantly by co-locating in our own building.” Carroll said for different reasons, he wasn’t in favor of the idea but the city went ahead and did due diligence. “We went ahead and pursued the idea of purchasing the building for $975,000. The city decided we didn’t have the money to renovate it. We did lose $10,000 from earnest money that was put down.”
“It’s in bad shape. It wasn’t done right,” Stuart said. “Why did we lose $10,000. That’s ridiculous. I don’t think they made everything public, in my opinion. That’s what I’ve been told by many people. we don’t need to throw our money away. We can be smarter, be wiser. I don’t think we need a new city office. We can’t afford it.”
Stuart said he came back to Blackfoot from Utah after living there for 20 years and he said the cost of water was “astronomical. What can we do to save? How come we can’t we go on a straight, across-the-board water cost for everybody. I’ve thought about that, I don’t know if that’s a good idea but I’ve thought about it as a way to save money on utilities.”
Carroll mentioned an annual report by an engineering firm on user rates and connection fees showing that Blackfoot is around the lowest 10 percent of 57 cities in the report on rates. We haven’t been saving for the major rebuilds we have to do right now. We have about 800 feet of sewer line that needs to be replaced on Ash St. that will cost around $250,000.”
Stuart said he lives in the area of the sewer line work. “I’ve been watching the vacuum truck going there daily. I realize it needs to be done, I’m not questioning that. Why don’t we just fix the problem right now since we don’t have the money to do the whole thing?”