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SHA plan recommends new tax

Aidan Leonard

SUMMIT COUNTY – Affordable housing may cost taxpayers just a little bit more in coming years if a proposed sales tax ever makes it off the drawing tables and onto the ballot.

Gary Suiter, an independent consultant hired by the county to help outline a strategic plan for the Summit Housing Authority (SHA), said long-term funding for the group may necessitate a countywide sales tax of up to a half of 1 percent.

Generally, a .5 percent sales tax collected across Summit County generates about $4 million, according to a history of Summit Stage countywide sales tax collections.

“Although survey research has shown that the public prefers developers to assume the brunt of the responsibility, this option poses several difficulties,” Suiter wrote in a summary of the plan he presented to the Board of County Commissioners Monday. “First, this solution singles out a particular sector, which could generate organized opposition. Second, common sense dictates that everyone should be a part of the solution.”

Suiter said that 80 percent of the people surveyed during his research considered housing to be a critical issue, or one of the most serious issues facing residents and workers in Summit County.

Nevertheless, he said, for a sales tax proposal to succeed, a well-

coordinated and strategic election campaign would need to occur.

He recommended the election take place no later than the fall of 2005. In 2002, voters rejected a small sales tax that would have generated about $400,000 to keep the SHA administration running.

“The policy debate really will revolve around a funding mechanism,” Suiter said.

Indeed, the issue of funding was what first prompted development of a strategic plan in the first place. Last year, the various entities that put up SHA’s funding required a formal set of guidelines before renewing their pledges, Suiter’s report says.

That report, which has been more than five months in the making and will be completed in the next few weeks, also points to the appointment of an executive director and an increased commitment countywide to address housing issues.

“The community needs to admit ownership of the problem and commit to a solution,” Suiter wrote.

“It comes back to political will,” Commissioner Gary Lindstrom said in agreement with Suiter, who appeared before the Board of County Commissioners Monday.

“It comes back to the elected officials and the elected boards of the county saying, “This is what needs to happen, and this is what we’re willing to do,'” Lindstrom said.

That will might prove a problem, he added, because citizens might not perceive the need to immediately address certain housing issues.

“There isn’t a huge amount of people out there who would say we need more housing,” he said. “I’m not sure how strong the political will is out there to do these sort of things.”

Suiter agreed, while the other commissioners and senior county staff pointed out that though the building of new housing might not be seen as a pressing concern, the fact that much of the housing available is out of the price range of many local residents is a problem.

“The housing market is soft right now, and when things get soft, the will tends to wane as well,” Suiter said. “The question of that political will remains. That’s why I’m suggesting you go forward with this and raise the flag.”

“See which way it blows,” he advised.

Commissioner Tom Long was slightly more wary.

“If we run it up the flagpole, don’t stand too close to it right now. When the mortars come in S” he said, letting his sentence fall there.

Lindstrom, on the other hand, was eager to shore up support for the SHA.

“I think the housing authority is a very important function and I want to see it continue,” he said. “If push comes to shove, I would be very much in favor of making it a county department.”

No one at the meeting seemed much in favor of such an idea, though Lindstrom said he voiced it to demonstrate his own feelings on the subject and possibly motivate others to do the necessary organizational work on their own.

Suiter, for his part, recommended that the SHA operate independently of both the towns and the county as a multijurisdictional body. Furthermore, he said the Summit Housing Development Corp., a nonprofit corporation founded in 1994 to provide housing for residents making low to moderate incomes, should be reactivated.

The SHDC would be more

project-oriented than the SHA, he said. “(It would be) private sector-ish, act in a less governmental and bureaucratic way.”

Up to 60 percent of the countywide funding source would be earmarked for this agency, he wrote, adding that its board should comprise professional managers and experts in the field of banking and development.

Suiter cited the recent proposal to create affordable housing in the Apartments at Soda Creek, in Summit Cove, as a perfect example where a reconstituted SHDC could help guide the project.

That development would convert 40 current rental units into 20 affordable housing units and 20 free market units. Each would be redeveloped before sale.

“There’s a lot of opportunity out there,” Suiter said, referring to cooperation with the private sector on housing issues.

Still, especially when it comes to support for both the SHDC and the SHA’s funding, furthering the public awareness and education would be crucial, he noted.

“If (citizens) do vote on the final housing decision, we’d like them to cast an informed vote,” he said.

That would require leadership on the part of elected officials.

“If you can’t get that consensus, that commitment,” he said, referring to addressing a possible sale tax, “I wouldn’t suggest you go forward with this.”


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