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  Comments (5) Total Friday Apr. 25, 2014
 
In Mayor’s Race, a Focus on the Economy
Attorney Tammi Fisher challenges incumbent Mayor Pam Kennedy
Challenger Tammi Fisher, left, and incumbent mayor Pam Kennedy take turn answering questions during a forum at the Hilton Garden Inn. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
It has been an undeniably rough couple of years for the city of Kalispell. As the so-called “Great Recession” took its toll on Northwest Montana’s commercial and economic hub, businesses laid off workers. Commercial developments and residential subdivisions stalled as growth ceased. Tax revenue declined, forcing the city government to cut programs and employees.

So when residents go to the polls Nov. 3 to elect two councilmen and a mayor, they will do so believing either the current city government did the best job possible guiding Kalispell through the downturn and cast their ballot accordingly, or that the decisions made by council members may have exacerbated the economic problems of the city and slowed recovery, and vote in new blood.

That question comes into sharpest focus in the nonpartisan race between incumbent Mayor Pam Kennedy, seeking a third term, and her challenger, attorney Tammi Fisher. In a recent interview at her downtown law firm’s office, Fisher was blunt in her criticism of the current city government in what has been an otherwise sleepy campaign season, questioning transportation impact fees, the state of the city budget and Kalispell’s pattern of growth through annexation.

But Kennedy doesn’t give an inch, noting the city budget was strong during the growth years and spare in the years that followed, defending annexation and calling the transportation impact fees a policy that should be revisited but one that will ultimately benefit Kalispell taxpayers.

IMPACT FEES’ IMPACT

On the March night of the vote to adopt transportation impact fees, which charge developers for part of the road improvements necessitated by the increased traffic their projects will create, Kennedy first voted to table the measure, then voted with the majority in an 8-1 decision to adopt them at a discounted rate. The city’s business community still largely objects to the fees, while those who supported them felt the council came to a satisfactory compromise.

Fisher believes the fees are based on faulty data and have stifled growth and development since the vote. Instead, she favors incentives like tax credits for businesses that commit to hiring a certain number of employees.

“I’m not opposed to reasonable impact fees – so long as they’re reasonable,” Fisher said. “I don’t think we’ll ever know how many developers just kept on driving because they saw what the imposition of the impact fees would be.”

“With the economy as it is, I think we need to look at other things, other than impact fees, to assist development and assist in job growth in the valley,” she added. “If that means altering the formulas that are used for impact fees, repealing them, taking a second look at them, then that’s fine.”

Looking back, Kennedy calls the transportation impact fee vote an “extremely hard decision,” acknowledging the difficulty of arriving at a fee rate considered fair and reasonable by both developers and fee supporters.

“We need to talk about whether or not we have had any developers not come because of a transportation impact fee and if we were to suspend them, would those new businesses come to our community,” Kennedy said. “We have to also look at the side of making sure that development does pay for increased capacity, necessary to that new growth, so that it doesn’t fall back on the taxpayers.”

“We have to be flexible enough to look at the economics of the time and be able to make a decision as to what’s in the best interest of the community,” she added.

SMART GROWTH?

In Fisher’s view, one of the key reasons the city budget has been stretched thin in recent years is through a growth policy reliant on the rapid annexation by Kalispell that took place from 2000 to 2006. Now that growth has slowed, she argues, the city is responsible for providing water, sewer and emergency response for some largely empty developments that have not provided the tax base to pay for their added burden on services.

“If we can’t plow our secondary streets in the city of Kalispell I’m not sure how we’re supposed to plow and maintain the streets of the properties we’re annexing,” Fisher said. “Whole-scale annexation, I just don’t think is a good way to grow a city. You grow from within before you even look at going outside.”

“If we’re looking at annexation, it can’t be the hop, skip and a jump annexation that’s been going on,” Fisher added. “We can’t say, ‘Here’s the city limits, if we annex this property that’s three miles outside of city limits and there’s county property in between that that’s really a positive thing.’ I don’t believe in that kind of annexation.”

Kennedy strongly disagrees, citing the annexation of developments like Silverbrook Estates to the north of the city and Old School Station to the south as precisely the kind of growth that sets up Kalispell for economic expansion. In both cases, she says, developers were willing to foot the bill to extend utility lines out to their developments, taking the burden off existing taxpayers and making it cheaper for subsequent projects to develop and hook up to those lines.

“That’s putting into place future growth opportunities and putting that infrastructure in there ahead of time,” Kennedy said. “We can be forward-thinkers, rather than reactionary.”

“Now we have infill areas in the city of Kalispell where other projects can come on board, and when they come on board the sewer and water will already be in place,” she added. “It’s part of that future planning that, I think, is really important to a community like ours.”

FINANCIAL TIMES

Kalispell’s budget remains spare, but stable. Its projected cash reserve of $309,000, however, is small for a city of its size, and the current level of stability was arrived at through painful cuts to all departments, especially Parks and Recreation, as well as some layoffs.

Despite the state of the economy, Fisher believes the city government has not been held to account for the severe drop-off in the cash reserve and questions decisions like the acquisition and lease of the current city hall building, as well as a set of large bronze statues – currently in storage and on hold until finances improve – commissioned for the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and U.S. Highway 93, calling the art project “dumb.”

“If we had our reserves fully met in 2007, how in a year-and-a-half’s time did we go from $1.5 million to $300,000, and still not have paid off the statues?” Fisher said. “Flathead County has done remarkably well in tough economic times. I’m not sure why it would be any different for the city of Kalispell.”

Though the city spent tens of thousand on the sculptures in 2008, Kennedy acknowledged it is not a project she supports in the current economy. Kennedy disputes Fisher’s assertion that Kalispell somehow doesn’t own city hall, saying the lease through a New York firm allows Kalispell to lock in a fixed rate of payment. And she defends the toughness with which the city has pared back its budget, cutting more than 20 programs out of the Parks and Recreation budget, as well as reductions in every other department, while maintaining a high level of service.

“We have cut back. We have stopped overtime. We went as far down as flowers on Main Street,” Kennedy said. “This budget that we have now is really, truly a bare-bones budget.”

THE CHOICE

In any election, the incumbent enjoys the advantage of experience and name recognition, but must also run on their record. The challenger, meanwhile, is free to criticize the public decisions of their opponent but must gain the confidence of voters to the extent that they are willing to take a chance on a newcomer.

Kalispell’s 2009 mayoral race is no different. Whoever wins the election on Nov. 3 will be tasked with leading the city out of one of its most difficult periods, and, hopefully, toward one of its best.
 
On 11-02-09, Willy commented....
I would like to point out that Mayor Kennedy is in the building business . . .how can she say she has shown leadership with those excessive cost overruns in the new City Hall . . .time for a change of leadership!
 
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