Tammi Fisher’s Mandate

By Kellyn Brown

It was not surprising that Tammi Fisher won Kalispell’s mayoral race, but the margin with which she did it certainly was. She beat incumbent Mayor Pam Kennedy by more than 25 percentage points (63-37) in a defeat that cannot be blamed on low turnout in an off-election year. At 31 percent, it was actually quite robust for this city.

To be clear, this election wasn’t even close.

The drumming took several people who closely follow local politics (there are a few of us) by surprise, especially since Kennedy was neither maligned nor a particularly divisive figure. She had her critics, but wasn’t saddled with any major scandal. No, this was a referendum on the makeup of the Kalispell City Council and Kennedy bore the brunt of voters’ discontent as the local government’s most visible figure.

First, with any incoming politician, Fisher should be encouraged and rallied around. She will now, as well as the three incumbents and one newcomer recently elected to the nine-person council, play a major role in shaping a city in flux.

Using a familiar theme – improving the economy – is what Fisher, who was backed by the Flathead Business and Industry Association, campaigned on, and jobs are what she and her “business-friendly” colleagues will be expected to deliver.

There should now be enough votes on the council to revisit and revise or even repeal the transportation impact fees, money charged to developers to offset costs of road improvements necessitated by increased traffic their projects create. Many in the business community blame the fees for stifling growth and further hurting a city that was already struggling under the weight of the “Great Recession.”

For Fisher’s part, she doesn’t oppose “reasonable fees,” but does blame them for discouraging some developers from building here. She also favors offering tax credits to businesses that provide a certain number of jobs.

The latter idea, once fleshed out, may work in attracting employers. But, while it’s easy to blame impact fees for Kalispell’s recent stagnant growth, those who think eliminating or lessening them will result in a number of projects breaking ground, providing much-needed relief to unemployed laborers, are delusional.

Many of the developments already approved by the council will remain on hold for years, if not decades, even if the fees are lifted altogether. Neither houses nor goods can be sold when the second-home market has dried up and year-round residents face unemployment hovering around 9 percent.

Those same dire economic fortunes have affected the city’s coffers, including a projected cash reserve of slightly more than $300,000 – a far too small cushion for a city the size of Kalispell. Admittedly, the easiest way to improve the finances is by cutting staff and services. But it’s one thing to say the city needs to “trim the fat” and quite another to actually do it, especially when many departments have already slashed expenses and laid off employees. The shuttering of timber mills, the closing of Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. and several rounds of layoffs at some of our biggest employers have far more to do with falling tax rolls than any decision made at city hall.

Still, Fisher has a key role to play, assuming the position as the council’s chief administrator and the public face charged with selling Kalispell to potential businesses. Her argument that the city can’t continue to grow through rapid annexation is a good one. The city, as Fisher said, should “grow from within before you even look to go outside.” I’ve long believed downtown Kalispell should be the focus of that growth, with the architecture and potential to be the backbone of the area’s economic recovery.

Fisher is sure to have several people and organizations that were essential to her election offering advice and hoping to influence her every move. That’s the nature of politics, but I hope she emerges with her own voice and holds to her own convictions. Expectations are high. And I wish her, and this city, well.