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Council races focus on new CdA facilities

Agency that helped pay for Kroc Center, library draws three challengers’ criticism

The incumbents in three races for Coeur d’Alene City Council regularly point with pride to two projects completed during their last term: the city’s new downtown library and the Salvation Army Kroc Center.

“The library is the love of my life,” said Deanna Goodlander, who is seeking a fourth term.

But the funding of those two projects represents a sticking point between the incumbents and their opponents.

The library and the community center are two of the most high-profile projects funded in part by urban renewal dollars. Goodlander, along with first-term Councilman Mike Kennedy and Woody McEvers, who’s served two terms, all have supported using urban renewal dollars for a host of projects they say have increased Coeur d’Alene’s quality of life, added jobs and helped the city prosper. Those projects include the Riverstone commercial and residential development along the Spokane River, the Prairie Trail walking trail and a new U.S. Bank service center.

The three challengers – Dan Gookin, Jim Brannon and Steve Adams – appear united in opposition to how the city’s urban renewal agency, the Lake City Development Corp., has spent money. They differ in approach – Adams has advocated eliminating the agency while Gookin and Brannon take issue with how the districts are structured and how money is spent. But all three say too much of the city’s valuation is held in urban renewal districts, and they want to see some or all of the property back on the tax rolls.

When urban renewal districts are created, a geographic boundary is defined and the value of property within that district is established. As property values rise from development within the district, taxes generated by the increase in value go into urban renewal coffers to pay for public improvement projects.

Though urban renewal is a hot topic, it is not the only issue. The candidates for seats 2, 4 and 6 acknowledge the difficult economy, expressing the need to create and retain jobs, attract new business and budget more efficiently.

“We are faced with property taxes that are really choking some peoples’ budgets and ability to stay in their homes. We need to find ways to reduce taxes,” said Brannon, 56, who is running against Kennedy for Seat 2. Though he called the library “fabulous” and the Kroc Center “truly a success,” Brannon advocates for half of the property held in the city’s urban renewal districts to be placed back in the tax base.

Kennedy wonders how Brannon would do that when most projects built using urban renewal funds come with debt obligations that will take years to fulfill. Though Kennedy said he disagreed with some of the decisions made by the urban renewal board, he accuses Brannon and the other two challengers of misleading the public on a confusing topic.

“They’re not doing a service to the citizens by muddying the waters so intensely,” Kennedy said, adding that if the challengers’ view had been dominant on the council, the library, Kroc Center and Prairie Trail would not have materialized. “None of them come now and criticize those projects. I think urban renewal is working exactly as it was intended. I hope the citizens will look and believe we’re better off than we were 10 years ago.”

The president of a high-speed Internet company, Kennedy also said creating and retaining jobs and sound budgeting will be top priorities in the next term, along with expanding park, open space and trail development and implementing the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, which he helped complete in his last term.

Brannon recently was let go after three years as executive director of Habitat for Humanity of North Idaho. He ran unsuccessfully for council in 1999 and in 2007. If elected, he said he’ll focus on job creation and analyzing the budget line by line. He said council members need to be more involved in budget management personally and not delegate that task to staff.

Adams, an insurance agent taking his first run at public office, criticized the council for using taxpayer money to build the library and Kroc Center without a vote of the people. He wants to eliminate the urban renewal agency, which he contends would result in more money flowing into the city treasury.

McEvers said it’s not that simple, also raising the issue of the debt that needs to be retired. The idea of removing properties from urban renewal districts once their debt has been fulfilled is enticing, he said. However, those properties also generate taxes that make other public projects possible. He said urban renewal is the only mechanism the city has to attract economic development.

“It’s the only thing the state will let us do,” McEvers said, adding that the challengers “haven’t put the time in to grasp it. They can still be against it, but that’s all we’ve got.”

McEvers considers himself a “voice of the people” because he hears daily from citizens while working in his restaurant, Rustler’s Roost in Hayden. He said the economy will dominate the next term, and the city will have to find efficiencies in the budget. He’d like to see the education corridor progress and would like to increase citizens’ televised access to government meetings.

Adams said he was inspired to run by Proverbs 12:24: “the diligent shall bear rule.” He said the council has become “too liberal fiscally” and said he’d like to see more citizen involvement in eliminating waste from the city budget. He’d like to see the region attract more jobs in “career industries,” such as technology and light manufacturing.

Urban renewal has long been a hot-button topic for Gookin, who is running against Goodlander, one of the council’s two representatives on the Lake City Development Corp. board. Gookin has long been a critic of the agency and said he supports urban renewal but not the “abuse” of it. He said urban renewal should benefit everyone, not just the owners of new condominiums or town homes. He supports those dollars going to infrastructure projects, and he’d like to see the agency produce a detailed plan so the public is aware of how that money is being spent.

Goodlander believes urban renewal does benefit everyone. She said the city wouldn’t have the library or Kroc Center without it, or 1,000 feet of public waterfront in Mill River, or 500 new U.S. Bank service center jobs. She said the only thing urban renewal can pay for is public improvements. As a member of the urban renewal agency board, Goodlander said she feels the agency is open to the public. Its meetings are televised and its Web site is detailed.

The urban renewal agency, Goodlander said, “was formed to develop our community. It has accomplished its goal.”

Other goals for Goodlander include seeing the education corridor project move forward, because North Idaho College produces a $32 million annual economic impact on the region that can be multiplied through the expansion of the downtown campus, she said. A healthy community is about “jobs, quality of life and opportunity,” she said.

Gookin, the 48-year-old creator of the “For Dummies” book series, is a former vice chairman of the state Libertarian Party who also ran for council two years ago. He said he’d like to see more transparency in government, and he’d like to see the city buy more land for parks and open space. He said he’ll review the budget “line by line” to make sure citizens get the most bang for the buck.

“We need to make sure decisions are made in public,” Gookin said. “The public process is there for a reason.”

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