The value of local elections

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As we headed to the polls this week I was reminded of a local election 25 years ago that set the stage for many of the improvements we see in Coeur d’Alene today. With all the growth that continues to challenge our area’s leaders, it’s not too early to begin thinking about local elections in 2019.

But, first a little history. In 1993 Coeur d’Alene City Councilman Al Hassell surprised many when he decided to take on Mayor (For Life) Ray Stone, who was seeking an unprecedented third term. Mayor Stone had worked very hard the prior eight years to improve a downtown that was reeling from the northward expansion of the city. The opening of the Silver Lake Mall and the loss of J.C. Penney and other iconic downtown stores helped to fuel the move north. As Highway 95 began to bear the traffic of the new development, the impact on Government Way and Ramsey Road also became clear.

This was compounded by an annexation request by the Schneidmiller family for Coeur d’Alene Place, a development on Ramsey that would come to include more than 2,500 homes. The family had agreed to provide three 10-acre parcels for the development for new schools, the first of which was Lake City High. With the school’s scheduled opening in the summer of 1994, the city was faced with a major challenge: how to find $4 million to upgrade Ramsey to accommodate the addition of 2,000 students and staff who would travel that arterial daily.

And so that election was about the future direction of a city that was about to burst at the seams. In a close race and despite Mayor Stone’s efforts (including the appointment of a certain young guy as his city treasurer), he was narrowly defeated and Al Hassell took over the office.

The new mayor hit the ground running, tasking city staff to hold a bond election in early 1994 to pay for improvements to Ramsey Road, as well as four-lane improvements to Government Way and Northwest Boulevard. He and the City Council had asked that funds other than property taxes be utilized to pay for the improvements. Staff was successful in approaching the city’s utility providers like Avista and KEC to increase the amount of their franchise fees so the city could use that revenue (plus a portion of state highway user fees) to pay for the bonds.

In February 1994, city residents overwhelmingly approved $11 million in bonds, making Coeur d’Alene the first city in Idaho to pay for street bonds with non-property tax funds. And, remarkably, just six months later a brand new Ramsey Road greeted the thousands about to attend the glimmering new Lake City High.

Improvements to Government Way soon followed: south of I-90 in 1996 and north of it a few years later. Northwest Boulevard and East Sherman also received major upgrades in the years that followed.

Mayor Hassell wasn’t done. Over the next four years he oversaw the implementation of impact fees on new development, and the creation of the city’s first urban renewal district. The latter led to the funding of several major city projects, including a new library, the Kroc Center and most notably McEuen Park. Pending waterfront improvements on the old Atlas Mill Site will be the next exciting project to welcome local residents.

As an elected official myself, I see the challenges we’re facing in the county. Just like 25 years ago, there are transportation issues that keep us waiting at traffic signals on congested local roads. From my seat on the Kootenai Metropolitan Planning Organization (KMPO) I hear from residents all the time. They like the fact that there’s a forum to voice their concerns, and I like that they voice them.

This is why local elections are important, so residents can go directly to those whose decisions impact them every day. In 2019, residents in cities and their highway districts will have a chance to vote for those who will listen.

And, to work together to keep our area a beautiful place to call home.

• • •

John Austin is the former Coeur d’Alene Finance Director and currently Commissioner for the Eastside Highway District. He can reached at Austin.consulting@gmail.com.

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