The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Sandpoint
City Council Meeting July 6, 2016
by Anita Aurit
A note to readers. This was a very long meeting. The agenda was jam packed so I will not comment in detail on everything. As this is an opinion piece, I will focus on the items that are most important to small business owners in the city. You can always watch council meetings in their entirety on the city’s website.
The BID Budget – When Over 50% of Your Budget is Administrative Costs, Maybe it’s Time for a Change.
I believe in giving credit where credit is due and, despite my issues with the city picking winners and losers in business, the Mayor’s pointed comments about the failings of the BID administration were issues that the majority of small business owners paying this tax have expressed for a number of years. It was wonderful to hear a city official giving voice to the issues BID payers have talked about for years..
Kim Queen, the BID director presented the budget, noting that if they received funds from SURA this year; the funds would be drastically reduced. She spoke of the events the BID managed as well as the holiday decorations and flower baskets. When asked by Councilwoman Williamson what the BID’s role was in all the events, Queen responded, ”permitting, marketing” She also commented that, “We’ve been told the money is for events and marketing.” (I’d like to know who told them this and were it is specifically stated in the statute.)
Councilman Camp asked Queen how the BID addressed businesses who didn’t feel they are receiving benefits from the tax. Queen responded with the comment I’ve heard over and over, there are so many businesses and only a small amount of people working for the BID. She went on to say she had experience working with non-profits and she knew how to “do a lot with small budgets.”
The Mayor pointed out the high administrative costs of the BID ($98,000.00 projected tax collections with $69,000.00 in administrative expenses,) He remarked that with these administrative costs, it’s a hard sell for any organization. Queen never directly addressed this point. (And the budget would be much bigger if, out of $98,000.00 projected BID income, the administrative costs weren’t $69,000.00.)
Councilman Camp suggested a five year sunset clause for the BID. The city attorney said that this was impossible and said the only change that could be made to the BID would be to dissolve it completely. He said that they were bound by the rules and format created by the businesses that formed the BID. . (Note, I didn’t vote for the BID, nor did many of the businesses now in existence vote for it. Why are we bound by rules that don’t apply to us?).
More discussion ensued. Councilwoman Williamson noted that perhaps businesses being taxed by the BID weren’t aware of what was available to them and thought it would be a nice service if this information was provided to local businesses. Queen’s response was that new businesses get information and it’s on the website. Queen asked if this was something that the city could help with and was advised this was not the duty of the city.
When the vote was called for approval of the budget, all voted to approve it except for Councilman Camp who voted no in solidarity with business owners. The budget was approved but many of the failures of the BID were exposed in this public forum and, more importantly, acknowledged and remarked upon by the Mayor and many of the Council members and for that, this beleaguered small business owner says a resounding, ‘THANK YOU!”
City Parking –Things are Looking Up!
The mayor presented his proposal regarding city parking. 15-minute loading and unloading zones were designated, 2-hour parking will be set up on First and Second streets to encourage turnover, more spots for 4 hour parking and designated free, all day and/or overnight parking. The Mayor noted that the new parking proposal might result in a slight decrease in permit purchases (approximately $50.00 less total) but said this would be offset by reduced enforcement costs. The city is hoping to implement these new parking zones by August. All in all, the planned seemed very beneficial to downtown businesses.
Another Pleasant Surprise from the Council and City Attorney regarding Bicycle Parking Standards
The City Attorney and the Mayor noted that the new bicycle parking standards should be guidelines rather than standards. There was testimony by members of the Bicycle Committee who were vehement in their belief that these should be standards, not guidelines and that if anyone wanted to install a bicycle rack that was outside of the “standards” they would have to go to the committee for approval. The Mayor reiterated his wish to have these as guidelines but after more testimony from the Bicycle Committee members the Council voted to have the new rules be standards and not guidelines. (I will be interested to find out what legal authority this committee operates under to be able to approve and disapprove these parking regulations.) A big “Thank You, to Aaron Qualls and the Mayor for advocating for adoption of these rules as guidelines and not standards.)
Sandpoint Police Thinking Outside the Box, Saving the Taxpayers Money and Offering Benefit to Local Neighborhoods
Chief Coons explained that a parking structure had been planned and budget for police vehicles. After revisiting this plan with the City Administrator a better option was presented with the Vehicle Take Home Program. The city had originally budget $450,000.00 for the parking structure. Chief Coons suggested that $250,000.00 of that budget be used to purchase police vehicles (returning the budget balance to the city coffers).
He outlined the benefits of officers being able to take their vehicles home one benefit for the community would be that emergency readiness time would be cut down. He also said that the program would assist the city with officer retention as this would be a welcome benefit for local officers (by the number of officers in attendance at the meeting it was obvious that this was a popular proposal). In addition, citizens have remarked that they felt that having a police vehicle in their neighborhood made them feel safer. (I can attest to this, as one of my neighbors works for the Sheriff’s department and I feel safer knowing that anyone with bad intentions in my neighborhood knows that there is a deputy on my street.)
The Council approved the proposal with the caveat that some of the policies on maintenance, etc. had a little more “teeth” in them.
New Fire Boat
The Fire Chief presented his proposal the that Fire Department sell their current fire boat and purchase a new boat that has three times the capacity of the existing one. He said that with the reduced price available for the new boat and the sale of the existing boat, this would be a cost neutral transaction. The purchase was approved.
LeadLok Lease-The “business incubator that isn’t”
This was a continuation from the previous city council meeting. Just a refresher, the city owns the building that LeadLok is in. The new lease renewal was proposed for 23 cents a square foot (below market value) and, SURA funds in the amount of $325,000.00 to be given to the company for improvements. This building’s original purpose was as a business incubator for the city.
Councilman Snedden, Camp and Aiken continued to be the voices of support for the business community, expressing their concern about awarding tax monies to a private business via SURA when those monies might be used to help several local businesses.
Councilman Snedden proposed that in order for LeadLok to show good will and contribute some of their own cash to their improvements, the $325,000.00 SURA monies be given as a lease credit. This was not a welcome suggestion.
Councilman Snedden proposed at the last council meeting that the building be sold as he felt it was not appropriate for the city to compete with landlords in the private sector. The city administrator was asked to find out the requirements for selling the building as it was built with federal, state and city tax monies for the purpose of providing a business incubator. Receipt of the funds to build was contingent upon the fact that the building be used for that purpose. The city, under the direction of former city employee, Jeremy Grimm, ousted the incubator businesses using the facility and the commercial kitchen in order to provide the space for a private business. The Inlander published an excellent article about this entitled, “Winners and Losers, How Sandpoint kept a growing company in its city by evicting small businesses.”
Stapleton explained the complexity of selling the building (which cannot happen until 2026) and stated that the stipulation that, “The building must be used according to its original purpose” was, according to her opinion fulfilled, she said, “with LeadLok in the building, I believe this qualifies.”
An interesting question was raised by Councilman Camp regarding the disposal of the commercial kitchen equipment. The response from Stapleton was a bit vague; she noted that the equipment was “surplussed”. Evidently the county was going to purchase the equipment and she said that the county had been informed that federal monies were “attached”. (What is the county going to do with the kitchen equipment?)
Councilman Snedden was firm in his desire to see LeadLok contribute some funds to the remodel of the property they rented (the current SURA grant is not the first award of tax payer monies to this company for renovations). Councilman Snedden received push back from other members of the council and staff. He asked how the amount of $325,000.00 was determined and were there any funds being contributed by LeadLok. Aaron Qualls said the figure was reduced from a much larger figure but he never addressed the question of LeadLok providing any of their own funding.
The mayor said he appreciated Councilman Snedden’s concerns but then gave the speech we’ve heard before about the number of jobs LeadLok provided, the fact that they pay taxes here, that they use the services here and remarked, “I’m confident that the overall business impact is positive.” (All that is true but, in my humble opinion, not a valid argument to give them tax payer funds to do renovations in the building, particularly funds that should be spread out and offered to other businesses in the community).
Councilman Snedden made one more valiant attempt to add an amendment to have the monies granted as a rent credit but that was voted down, with Aaron Qualls, Planning and Zoning Director stating that, “They may not have Capitol up front to make improvements.” Really, maybe they’ll have to do what the rest of the businesses do, wait until they have the money, but I guess if you’re getting tax money, why spend your own?)
The bottom line: a five year lease was approved at the below market rate. Nothing was confirmed as to whether the rental rate would be increased after the five year period. The city will have to return 55% of the value of the asset in 2026 when the building is sold. The city will be acting as the general contractor for LeadLok’s $325,000.00 SURA grant improvements.
Bid Acceptance and Award of Contract for Broadband Feasibility Study and Business Plan
The City Administrator requested approval to award the contract to DesignNine. She stated that Phase One of the fiber install was completed. This is “dark fiber” but “it puts us in the right place.” Providers are asking about leasing prices. The school district has already awarded their contract to FatBeam. She said FatBeam is looking to install their lines with the city’s lines. Stapleton commented that, “We’re at the point of making crucial business development plans.” She said that the city did a “heavy outreach”, announced an RFP to companies with experience with municipal fiver in rural communities. As the “timeline is crucial. Ting has announced they will be in the Sandpoint market “if certain criteria are met” and other providers are interested as well.”
Councilman Aiken asked if she had spoken with Bozeman or Missoula where DesignNine has done work. The response was yes. Councilman Aiken was also concerned that the terms of the contract were not written that the city would be paying unnecessary travel expenses and was assured this was covered. The council voted to approve the3 awarding of the contract to DesignNine. (I have many questions about what the “certain criteria” are that Ting demands. Has the city had conversations with local companies such as Northland Communications, Verizon, etc? Should the city be in the utility business?)
New Scofflaw Regulations – Pay Those Tickets!
A Parking committee will be formed with downtown business owners, employees and workers. The committee openings will be advertised to the public.
The City Administrator presented her recommendations for the new Scofflaw regarding parking tickets. As of May 1 the city has $56,095.00 in outstanding parking tickets with another $23,725.00 in late fees.
The new law will apply to those with 6 or more tickets that are unpaid 45 days or more. There will be a 60 day amnesty period and 50% of the late fees will be waived during that period. At the end of the amnesty period those with 6 or more tickets that are unpaid 45 days or more will be turned in to collection. The city will employ booting in instances were necessary. Bottom dispute or pay your tickets soon!
My Two Cents
I’ve made it known that my trust of the mayor is minimal, particularly as a result of the January refugee debacle. All that aside, I believe in giving credit where credit is due and the mayor gets the credit for initiating the conversation regarding the issues with the BID. He voiced what many frustrated local business owners have been voicing for years. The council members who added value to the conversation with their questions and suggestions were also greatly appreciated.
More often than not, I find myself on the opposite of the fence of the majority of the Sandpoint city council members but I’m a firm believer of building bridges whenever possible. If we refuse to acknowledge the good work of those who may be diametrically opposed to our political, fiscal, social positions we are no better than those who are seeking to divide this country on a national level. Let’s listen to each other. Learn from each other and have a polite conversation together. We won’t always agree but when we do, we need to celebrate the fact that we have commonality.