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In Kalispell Council Forum, Candidates Take on Impact Fees, City Budget
City Elections November 3
A crowd fills a conference room at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kalispell to hear candidates for city council speak during a forum. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
The issues of transportation impact fees and the city hall lease dominated a Kalispell City Council candidate forum Tuesday, with challengers questioning the council’s budget priorities and decision-making. Incumbents meanwhile, defended their decisions as responsibly guiding Kalispell through one of the worst recessions in a generation.

Local attorney Tammi Fisher is challenging Mayor Pam Kennedy who is seeking a third term. Ward 2 incumbent Hank Olson is defending his seat against businessman Jeff Zauner, while Marc Rold, the owner of Wild Horse Limousine, aims to unseat long-time Ward 3 councilman Jim Atkinson. The races give the Nov. 3 elections the potential to dramatically alter the makeup of the nine-person council. Ward 1 Councilman Bob Hafferman and Ward 4 Councilman Tim Kluesner are running unopposed.

At the forum, sponsored by the Flathead Building Association, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce and Northwest Montana Association of Realtors, Fisher took aim squarely at Kennedy and other current council members for failing to plan and save money adequately during the “boom years” of Kalispell’s rapid growth to prepare for the more recent lean years of the recession, in which the city has grappled with a low cash reserve and cut some programs.

“Where did the money go? The county didn’t suffer the same fate, why did the city?” Fisher said. “Our city government is the only component of our economy that has not cut spending and that is unacceptable.”

Fisher went on to criticize the acquisition and renovation of the current city hall building, questioning whether the building was owned by a New York firm. She also urged the city to stop annexing property for which it cannot afford to provide services, and called for an audit into Kalispell’s finances.

Kennedy said the city undergoes and passes annual audits already, and defended the move into the current City Hall building at the corner of Second Street and First Avenue East. The city purchased the old Wells Fargo building as a way to stay downtown and bring all the city departments under one roof, instead of paying rent for office space dispersed throughout downtown, Kennedy said, adding that the city owns the building and leased it to a New York firm for a dollar a year in order to lock in a fixed interest rate.

“It was a good use of city funds,” Kennedy said. “It was a way to secure financing at a fixed rate, rather than a variable rate.”

Kennedy went on to say the city did save during the years of Kalispell’s rapid expansion and development, maintaining a high cash reserve.

“We were able to see it at that level for six years out of the last eight,” Kennedy said, adding that the city is now focused on increasing that reserve from the current projected level of $309,000.

Challengers Zauner and Rold challenged incumbents Atkinson and Olson for their support of transportation impact fees, the controversial policy adopted earlier this year that charges developers a fee to pay for the road improvements necessitated by the traffic increase from their developments.

Zauner and Rold both cited the impact fees as the chief impediment to Kalispell’s economic recovery, with Rold saying the fees need to be revoked because the policy sends a message from the city to new business that says, “We don’t want you.”

“That is the main thing we can do to make our city business-friendly,” Rold added.

Atkinson defended the council’s adoption of the fees, noting the city removed several planned road projects in order to lower the initial fees and discounted the fee to 75 percent of the scheduled rate for the first two years. Tools like transportation impact fees and tax increment finance districts, he added, are among the few granted by the state to municipalities in order to fund large-scale infrastructure improvements.

“Ward 3 residents are the people that the impact fees are positively impacting,” Atkinson said. “Is the city business friendly? Yes.”

Other issues proved not as contentious, with all candidates expressing their support for allowing city residents to vote on a local option sales tax, though bills to accomplish such a measure have repeatedly failed to pass the state Legislature. The candidates all also broadly agreed that downtown is seeing something of a revitalization, with several new businesses opening or planned to open, but more could be done to encourage businesses to locate there.
 
On 10-15-09, sra61 commented....
Do the people of Kalispell understand what the Impact Fees did to our local economy? There were 4 multi-million dollar projects that were halted by the owners because of the exorbitant fees imposed by our City Council. At the very beginning of the worst economic time since Jimmy Carter, our…
 
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