Picking Winners & Losers and It’s All about the Tourism
A review of the Sandpoint City Council Meeting on Wednesday, 3/16/16,
by Anita Aurit
I when I arrived at 5:20pm, there were quite a few people in attendance. This was a departure from the normal empty seats, I was hopeful.
The mayor extended his thanks to those serving on the Arts Commission and advised that the city is seeking to fill two open positions on the Arts and Planning and Zoning Commissions.
The city Administrator, Jennifer Stapleton announced an educational forum on Thursday, April 22 to explain the 1% city tax. The forum will be held in council chambers
The mayor read a proclamation in support of this Saturday’s Penguin Plunge that is a part of Idaho a Special Olympics.
As the council will lack a quorum, the first scheduled meeting for April is cancelled. The April city council meeting will be on April 20th.
I was surprised that with the fairly large audience in attendance, there were no public forum comments.
“Don’t Worry Our Deficit Isn’t as Bad as Other States.”
Chris Shipley, CPA gave a very quick overview of the city’s financial audit. “Why does the city have an audit?”, he asked. And then responded, “Because it’s required by the state and/or when city has debts and/or when city expends a certain amount of federal monies.” “ And How did the city do?”, he asked and then replied to his own question, “The city did great, there were no significant deficiencies or material gaps.” Well alrighty then.
Once he dealt with that pesky audit info, he talked about GASB68 which deals with the employee pension plan. He stated that it has zero effect on cash flow. Then he presented the “Snapshot Guide to Government Pensions”. He said that the government pensions “reside” in Boise and that ” the monies have net pension assets or net pension liability.” He clarified that expenditures=retirement payments. He said the city’s net pension liability is “natural” and that the size of the Idaho state net pension liability is “way better” than other states. At this point Councilwoman Williamson asked if increased contributions could reduce or clear the net liability. The short answer was “no.” I appreciated her question because pension funding and pension deficits in city and state budgets is a serious thing, I recently read an article about this topic entitled, US public pension deficits squeeze city and state budgets and I have grave concerns about any deficits, regardless of the size.
If you have an extra day or two in your work week, you might want to peruse the city budget.
Request For Reduction in Sewer Charges
A representative for a local landlord spoke regarding the request for relief of extremely high sewer costs due to a broken pipe. There was quite a bit of discussion and Councilwoman Williamson stated that if relief was granted, she wanted the city to be assured that any additional monies the tenants might have been assessed due to the higher sewer costs would be returned to them. Another excellent concern and kudos to her for looking out for the businesses. The mayor suggested that the relief be granted with the condition mentioned by Councilwoman Williamson. Request was approved.
Sandpoint Senior Center Request to Sublease Property
The Senior Center has been approached by Rick Bennet who runs a Daybreak Center type operation in Coeur D’Alene who is interested in taking over the program in the facility that is on the Senior Center property. The Senior Center spokeswoman noted that turning the Daybreak program over to this man and subleasing to him would create a source of revenue for them (she stated the Daybreak program is currently a financial drain on the Senior Center). The new program would be equipped to take VA benefits and, if his prices in Sandpoint mirror the costs in Coeur d’Alene, the rates will be lower as well. The city attorney said that the sublease could be easily arranged with council approval. The approval was given.
Sandpoint Middle School Sidewalk
The city will bid out the work for this project and the school district will provide the matching funds with a grant (TAP Award)
The City Gets in the Business of Business-Again
This is an agenda item of particular interest to me. For a number of years, when I questioned the former city manager about certain city decisions to provide financial and other assistance to private business I was told two things repeatedly. 1-That company was thinking about taking their business out of Sandpoint, threating to leave Sandpoint, was seen having a meeting with someone from Coeur d’Alene, etc, etc. etc. and 2-This will provide so many jobs and benefit tourism
The issue of obtaining grant monies for the Solar Roadways demonstration project was presented with the same reasoning. Here are the key points:
1. Aaron Qualls wants a GEM Grant to be applied for so that the solar roads company can install a demonstration project at Jeff Jones park.
2. The GEM grant the city is being asked to apply for is $50,000.00 and the matching funds requirement would be paid by the city to the tune of $10,000.00 which would hopefully be provided by SURA and, if not, by the city.
What were the compelling factors for this grant? Aaron Qualls, “They’ve been courted by a lot of places” “They (the solar road company) want to do this in Sandpoint.” “It would attract a lot of people to downtown Sandpoint.” “The grant deadline is next week.”
When a citizen asked if there was a plan to handle the ice that would be formed and if there was assurance that the panels wouldn’t freeze, the mayor responded by saying, “That’s a good question but if we have snow build up, we have ice under snow anyway..and..um…err but that’s one of those things we have to look at…”
The city administrator noted that if the grant is awarded, that is the kind of thing public works and parks and rec would have to assess and deal with. She then stated that another option might be that the solar roadway company do a private demo and that they are currently installing the product in their parking lot. That option received no further discussion.
Councilman Snedden moved to amend the motion to award the grant but note that the city would not pay the $10,000.00 match and that the cash match come from the private solar roadway company. His comments were immediately met with push back from Councilwoman Williamson who said, “Given that this has international attention” and that the solar roadway company “can do this wherever they want, I think we should support that.. I don’t think we should do that. I don’t think the money should come from the general fund.”
At this point the city administrator jumped in reminding the council that the match had to be cash and she stressed that the timing was short and that there could only be one GEM grant at a time and the city had plans to apply for a GEM grant for a network operations center for the fiber networks which Qualls said, “Would enable the company to hook up fiber optics for businesses.” If the fiber company is a private company why is the city getting involved and who will be paying the cash match for that project, the city again? But I digress.
There was more back and forth discussion. The question was raised as to why the project not been done during the renovation of the Amtrak station as there had been a budget allocation for it. Councilwoman Ruhele stated that since this is a roadway project why not do it on a roadway? Qualls said they were not ready for roadways yet.
Qualls noted that the solar roadway company would pay for materials and install. It was also stated that the upkeep would be paid the city. Councilwoman Williamson said that since this is a project to generate energy, how will the energy generated by the demo project be used. Qualls responded that they have a “lot of ideas.”
With the grant deadline looming next week, the pressure was on for a vote. Councilman Eddy reiterated that he was not comfortable with timeline, noted that it was a shame funding was available at Amtrak and product wasn’t ready. The city administrator responded that it was only recently that the company had the machinery to produce the product on a larger scale. Thank you Councilman Eddy for stating what I was thinking.
Prior to the vote Councilwoman Williamson said, “I would encourage you to think about the benefit that will completely outweigh the cost.” The mayor weighed in as well noting that SURA had spent “a lot of money on art projects” and that this will have “an artistic aspect and tourists will select Sandpoint as a destination because of their interest in the product.”
The GEM grant application was approved.
I find it interesting that there were no representatives of the solar roadway company at the meeting. I also think that our mayor needs to understand the difference between government funding art and picking winners and losers in private business.
Bid Acceptance and Award of Contract to North County Electric LLC for Fiber Optic Cable Installation
It was noted that 7 bids were received for this job and the lowest was at $115,547. I assume this was the bid from North County Electric. The director of Technology for Bonner County spoke to enthusiastically support this project and said “the goal is to share this project.” He said that the network is a critical component to the 911 system and involved system public safety issues. No specifics were given.
My 2 Cents
I am weary of hearing why our local government should favor one business over another because “they will bring jobs”, “they are threatening to leave”, “it will enhance tourism”. As a small business owner I invest in and care about this community. I choose to live here understanding that the profit margin I realize here is less than it would be in a larger community. I accept that as a condition and a benefit of living in an area like Sandpoint. There are numerous examples of favoritism for and outright hostility to some private business in Sandpoint. Case in point, BID taxes (a forced tax) designated and allocated to private business for the last several budget cycles. Businesses have lost access to vital space for the benefit of other private businesses that the city government has chosen to pick as “winners”. When I questioned the former city manager as to why small businesses were forced out of a city run facility the response was , “They were all hobby businesses.” That was a false statement.
I do thank councilman Snedden for speaking up as the voice of reason for private business.
I have no problem with the solar roadway folks receiving a grant and I am rooting for their success, but I believe they should have some “skin in the game”, more than just install and product and that they should have had someone a the meeting to champion the project.
I believe in Margaret Thatcher’s comment that, “The government has no money of its own. It’s all your money.” It is our money folks so let’s pay more attention to how it’s being spent.
Anita Aurit is the owner and operator of The Office Sandpoint.