Mayor Bieter takes another swing at fire bond

After a narrow defeat last November, he remains determined to upgrade the Boise department’s facilities.

sberg@idahostatesman.comJune 13, 2014 

— Boise Mayor Dave Bieter simplified his pitch to voters this year.

Instead of the $50 million bond he announced at last year’s State of the City speech, Bieter used this year’s speech Friday to announce that he’ll ask voters to approve borrowing $17 million to pay for fire-protection upgrades.

The new bond measure won’t require a tax increase. And it will be easier to explain.

Last year, the mayor first proposed a single ballot measure that would have raised taxes to pay for new and improved parks, open-space purchases, and upgrades to fire and police department resources. After receiving feedback, he proposed breaking that measure into two — one measure for parks and open space, the other for the fire department — and removed a Downtown police station.

Both bond measures fell short of the two-thirds majority required for passage. Sixty-four percent of voters backed the fire bond, and 61.5 percent the other initiative.

Bieter thinks simplifying the message will help. “When you only have one, it’s easier to talk about and make your case,” he said. He might be right, said Jim Weatherby, former director of Boise State University’s Public Policy Center and an expert on Idaho politics.

“There is the clear message, and it is much clearer with this bond than the last one,” Weatherby said. “And voters tend to support public-safety measures more than they do recreation and some other functions of local government. That should be beneficial for the advocates.”

Bieter described the bond as a no-tax measure, but that’s not exactly correct. Though taxes might not increase, the city would use its existing budget to pay off the bond over the next 20 years or so. Most city revenue comes from taxes.

Weatherby said the no-tax message could backfire if it confuses voters and makes them think the city is trying sell them something that’s too good to be true.

The city must still seek voter approval for long-term borrowing, even if taxes don’t rise.

Hard track record

In the 1960s, Boise voters passed an airport expansion bond. Since then, no nonschool municipal bond has passed in the city.

“We want to win it, obviously, for the revenue, but we want to win it for the precedent,” he told the Statesman after Friday’s speech. “Because if we’re able to do this, we can come back at whatever the end of the term is and do it again.”

Bieter said payments on the bond would be about $1.5 million per year. He said he’s not worried about committing the city to that payment over two decades because it’s a small piece in a general fund that’s approaching $200 million.

The mayor and the City Council must work out details of the bond over the next couple of months. Those details include when to put the measure before voters, its final dollar amount, the length of time for repayment, and what exactly the money would be used for. Bieter said the list of projects he wants to tackle is similar to last year’s measure, which called for the replacement of one fire station, the relocation of another, upgrades to two more, and $7 million to build a new fire-training center.

The timing of the election will matter, Weatherby said. It’s possible that in August or February, Boise would get a group of voters more likely to support the bond than if the vote is held on a general or primary election date, he said.

Ultimately, though, the most important obstacle is the supermajority. “Two-thirds is always very tough,” Weatherby said.

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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