A real estate agent, a businessman and an engineer.
The three candidates for the south county’s seat on the Blaine County Commission were true to their backgrounds in their pitches to voters Wednesday night during a Pizza & Politics candidate forum presented by the Idaho Mountain Express.
About 60 people attended the event at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey to hear independent Debra Hall (the real estate agent), Republican Mick Halverson (the businessman) and Democrat Dick Fosbury (the engineer) state their cases for the District 1 post, and incumbent Democrat Angenie McCleary and independent Mickey Garcia campaign for District 3 in the north.
The valley’s affordable-housing crunch dominated discussion. Finding solutions for the shortage topped nearly every candidate’s to-do list, though their angles to attack the problem varied.
District 1 race
For Hall, who founded Hallmark Idaho Properties in Hailey and twice helmed the Sun Valley Board of Realtors, housing is the reason that she’s in the race. She suggested the county provide incentives for builders to break ground, and cut regulations and red tape that she says binds prospective projects.
Her view of the crisis comes from her work, and has a bit of a generational edge. In particular, Hall’s concerned about how the shortage keeps young people, new families and entry-level employees out of the valley.
“You’re here, you have homes, you’re safe,” she told the crowd. “But you don’t see the people I deal with every day, who have jobs lined up here, but can’t live here. I get these calls all the time, and I have to tell them I have nothing for them. And I wonder how many people we turn away, because of the lack of housing and affordability.”
Hall’s critique didn’t just skew young; she also bashed the county for its management of the former Blaine Manor site. Earlier this year, the commissioners donated a portion of that land to the ARCH Community Housing Trust, which is seeking to develop 28 deed-restricted units for seniors. With a waitlist of more than 50 for a similar development on River Street in Hailey, Hall called the project a half-measure.
“It’s a nice start, but why are we stopping short?” she asked. “Why aren’t we shooting to fulfill the need that’s already out there? We have so far to go in our county, we need to catch up by leaps and bounds—not just here and there.”
Fosbury said he’d do that by taking a close look at county code to create more efficient policy around housing and land use.
Participating via conference call, the Olympic gold medalist turned engineer said he’d start by creating a zone for mobile home parks. Though several exist in Blaine County, there’s nothing on the books allowing the development of new ones. First, he’d extend the new designation to pre-existing properties, then open it to new applications as they come in. Built around a central sewer, mobile and manufactured homes are about as affordable as housing gets, he said. On that, both his opponents agreed.
The Democrat’s interests were more specific than his opponents and, true to form for Ketchum’s former city engineer, more technical. Asked about his priorities, Fosbury emphasized efficiency and planning. He’d like to push forward restoration programs for the Big Wood River, and employ more advanced technological monitoring of its flows. And, he’d like to use technology to “open up” the workings of the board to its citizens, most significantly by broadcasting its meetings.
During budget hearings earlier this year, Fosbury noted that he was often one of the only members of the public present.
Most of the time, Mick Halverson was another.
Halverson, who ran a plumbing business in Bellevue before moving into real estate in retirement, rents out a dozen or so properties he owns in the south county. The Republican stood on classic party principles—“I believe in free enterprise and less government,” he said—but backed a flexible, bipartisan approach to the county’s biggest problems.
“You can do affordable housing in this valley, and we need to,” he said, adding that current costs are drying up the labor pool valleywide. “We’re all going to have to give up something to have the things we need in this valley. It’s an important issue, and we need to come together on it.”
The same stands for his view of the prospective redundant transmission line along state Highway 75, which he says is necessary for the future of the valley. Fosbury, who is currently weighing the proposal as a member of the county Planning and Zoning Commission, couldn’t comment on the pending application, but he has supported it in the past. Hall said she needed further study on the subject.
Halverson’s conservative bonafides became clear as talks turned to the county budget, which he emphasized as both a priority and a point of concern. His refrain: “The government needs to be more like an independent business. There needs to be a bottom line to it.”
For him, that means taking a closer look at line items that aren’t “cost effective,” “constantly evaluating expenditures” and weighing possible free-market solutions to things like recycling and infrastructure projects, such as roads or bridge maintenance.
It also means donating a portion of a commissioner’s roughly $90,000 base salary to valley nonprofits, and providing his own insurance benefits. When it came time to question his opponents, Halverson, who is retired, pressed the issue. Fosbury—also retired—said he’d be opening donating a portion to an affordable-housing fund. Hall, who at 56 is the only candidate still in the workforce, said she’d evaluate the demands of the job first, adding that she regularly contributes privately to local organizations.
According to the Idaho Association of Counties’ most recent salary survey, which covers fiscal 2018, the Blaine County commissioners have the fourth highest base pay in the state, trailing Ada, Canyon and Twin Falls counties. Commissioner compensation represents around 1 percent of the county’s $30.3 million budget for fiscal 2019.
District 3 race
Earlier in the evening, District 3 challenger Garcia pushed the salary point even further, calling the commissioners “crooks” for accepting the wages they do.
“They’re ripping you off, period,” the Ketchum independent said. “They say they support liberal causes, but they’re not getting anything done. Affordable housing definitely isn’t getting done. Since the federal government owns most of Blaine County, they really have nothing to do but busy work.”
In a contrast of styles, Garcia hammered his support for affordable housing, and government reform. Citing the percentage of federal land in Blaine County, he wants to cap commissioner pay at $35,000 annually—about $6,000 below the state average, which also includes part-time positions, according to the Idaho Association of Counties.
And, he wants to impose two term limits on the office.
“It’s not an open system,” he said. “It’s a phony system.”
Ketchum Democrat McCleary has served on the board for 10 years, having defeated Garcia in three prior elections.
“I think that commissioner is a full-time job,” said McCleary, who at 41 is the youngest commissioner candidate on the county ballot. “It’s important that it is paid fairly, and commensurate to what other elected officials are making. In order to have a strong democracy, we need these positions to be open to everyone, and we need quality candidates to apply for the job.”
Against Garcia’s attacks, McCleary stood on her record of collaboration, which includes improvements to public transportation, support for mental health resources, fire and flood mitigation work, and passage of the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve.
“None of these efforts would be possible without stronger partnerships, be it with the state or federal government, nonprofits and private businesses,” she said.
On housing, she presented collaboration as the road to building more units. That means donating land when the board can, supporting the Blaine County Housing Authority and working with other jurisdictions.
“Ideally, community housing would be located in cities,” she said. “The county needs to work with them to get this on track.”
While those talks progress, she said, the county needs to look at its density limits and ways to improve existing deed-restricted overlay districts, and continue to work on a potential ordinance that would provide property tax relief for new rental developments.
Mobile home parks, which Garcia supports full-throat, should be “part of the mix,” McCleary said.
“They need to be in the right area,” she said. “They’re an excellent opportunity for housing.”
Both candidates recognized that it would be an uphill battle to get that passed.
“It’s CAVE, BANANA, NIMBY,” Garcia said, using his three acronyms of choice. “That’s ‘Citizens against virtually everything,’ ‘Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody,’ ‘Not in my backyard.’ That’s what we’re fighting.”
McCleary struck a more diplomatic tone.
“The main thing we can do is have community conversations,” she said. “Together, if we recognize the need, we can get past our issues.”