Whitefish Council Commits $2.5 Million to High School Project

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – After discussion went deep into the night on Jan. 3, the newly assembled Whitefish City Council unanimously approved a resolution of intention to commit $2.5 million in tax-increment finance funds to a high school reconstruction project, surpassing the city manager’s original proposal of $1.75 million.

On a night when multiple people mentioned how politicized the issue has become, the council’s three newest members – John Anderson, Frank Sweeney and Richard Hildner – cast their votes for the $2.5 million proposal after expressing reluctance throughout the public hearing. It was the first meeting for the three councilors, who took their oaths of office earlier in the evening along with Mayor John Muhlfeld.

The $2.5 million commitment will now be added to funds derived from other sources, including state grant and matching funds and private fundraising, enabling the school district to lower the amount it will seek from the public to $14 million. If passed, the $14 million bond will go toward the total anticipated total price tag of $19 million for the school project, which is a combination of new construction and renovations.

At a meeting on Jan. 10, the school board is expected to discuss plans for a school bond election in the spring, a timeline that gave urgency to Tuesday night’s vote.

The resolution required modifying the boundaries of the city’s urban renewal district and approving the school as an urban renewal project. In a memo, City Manager Chuck Stearns noted there are sufficient monies in the TIF fund to support either $1.75 or $2.5 million, but cautioned the council to “consider the impact that either of these contributions would have on the projects previously existing in the Urban Renewal Plan,” including downtown parking and redevelopment of the Idaho Timber and former North Valley Hospital sites.

In arguing on behalf of the school project as a tool for economic development, which is part of the criteria for allocating TIF funds, Councilor Phil Mitchell said a good school is vital for attracting and keeping residents, including businesspeople. He said Whitefish is losing students to Glacier High School in Kalispell already.

“I do not want the community to turn into tourists and retired people,” he said, adding that he can’t think of a more “blighted building in Whitefish” than the high school.

Mitchell also pointed out that school bonds have already failed twice before, so it was incumbent upon the city to contribute the necessary amount to ensure this bond will pass.

“If this fails for a third time, we will see a long-term change for this town,” he said.

At the beginning of the Jan. 3 public hearing, Sweeney, Anderson and Hildner voted to table the TIF proposal, a motion that was opposed by Mitchell, Chris Hyatt and Bill Kahle. Mayor Muhlfeld cast the tiebreaking vote to continue the hearing.

Sweeney, who favored allocating $1.75 million of TIF funds, said he was “frustrated” by the “changing numbers,” a scenario he referred to as a “bait and switch.” He said school officials had previously indicated $1.75 million would be sufficient, but Superintendent Kate Orozco then formally requested $2.5 million in a mid-December letter to former Mayor Mike Jenson.

Sweeney asked Chris Kelsey of Steeplechase Development Advisors, the consultant heading up design plans for the school, what the difference between a $14 million and $15 million bond would be for an average homeowner. Kelsey said $10 a year. Sweeney noted that he has never personally voted against a school bond, reminding that school projects are generally funded by bonds and rarely receive aid from city governments.

“It’s $10 – not a month, not a week, a year,” he said, adding: “This should not become a political battle over $10.”

Kelsey and Bayard Dominick of Steeplechase alluded to the “political tightrope” they’ve been walking, with community members coming at them from all sides with differing requests, ranging from asking for far less than $1.75 million to requesting up to $7 million from the city.

“We’ve been called wimps; we’ve been called mealy-mouthed,” Kelsey said.

A letter from members of a recently formed group called Whitefish Community Partners serves as a microcosm for the political contentiousness shaping the school project talks. Whitefish Community Partners bills itself as a politically diverse group of citizens striving to find “collaborative solutions to the issues facing our community,” though the collaboration has hit an early stumbling block.

The letter, signed by members Rick Blake, Don Kaltschmidt, Bob DePratu and Richard Atkinson, chastised group moderator Brian Muldoon for misrepresenting their position in agreeing to a $1.75 million TIF allocation for the school when actually they wanted more from the city. They leveled other complaints at Muldoon as well.

The four members asked Muldoon to no longer “speak to the media on our behalf and remove our name from future communications unless you have our prior written approval of the communication.”

“We have great concerns about your ability to maintain a balanced perspective while serving as the group’s moderator,” they wrote. “You have remained silent while liberal participants engaged in personal and outrageous attacks on our more conservative members.”

In response, Muldoon said he is confident everyone can work together.

“Politics is a difficult business,” Muldoon wrote in an email. “Helping political adversaries to work together is even harder. Mr. Blake’s letter criticizing my work with the Whitefish Community Partners is testament to the hazards of collaboration. Some people obviously have a harder time living with compromise than others, and the mediator can become a convenient target for blowing off steam. I understand that, and do my best not to take it personally. But, despite the challenge of political collaboration, we managed last year to mediate the long-standing controversy over the zoning of South U.S 93. I am confident that we will succeed this year in working together for passage of the new school bond. But it is painfully obvious that the people of Whitefish are tired of politics as usual. Everyone involved with the Whitefish Community Partners is committed to change that – even if we are subjected to some unfair shots along the way. And even if some old dogs have to learn some new tricks.”