The city of Boise didn’t collect $5 million of property tax money it was supposed to raise this year for open space and water quality protection because its budget department didn’t tell Ada County to assess a levy voters passed in 2015.
The city recently discovered the mistake when its budget specialists met with Ada County’s tax experts to go over next year’s budget.
The error can’t be fixed through administrative procedures, said Jade Riley, Mayor Dave Bieter’s chief of staff. Voters passed the levy, which specified that it would be assessed in 2017 and 2018. So only voters can change the details, city staffers concluded.
“We made a mistake,” Riley said. “We want to be transparent with the voters.”
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Staff plans to ask the City Council on Tuesday to approve ballot language for a new levy election Nov. 7. Despite the mistake, Bieter is confident voters that will pass the levy again. Partly, that’s because open space protection is a fundamental value in Boise.
There’s a mathematical calculation, too. Unlike long-term bonds, which require two-thirds supermajorities, two-year levies need only a simple majority to pass. More than 74 percent of voters backed the levy in 2015. Even if some of those voters change sides this year, the levy can still pass.
“That number is pretty incredible, and I think people have seen how much we leverage (open space) funding,” Bieter said.
‘AN HONEST ERROR’
The 2015 levy was similar to one voters passed in 2001 that raised $10 million for purchases and protection of Foothills land. That money has been used to preserve almost 11,000 acres with a value of about $35 million, according to city estimates. About $600,000 is left in that earlier fund.
Bieter said the failure to collect the initial $5 million from the 2015 levy shouldn’t delay any purchases or projects.
If the levy passes again this fall, you won’t be taxed twice for open space preservation next year, City Councilwoman Maryanne Jordan said. Instead, the election will simply change the dates of the current levy, she said. If voters say no, the city will just collect the old levy’s already-authorized second year.
“I appreciate the fact that, as soon as it was discovered, (the budget team) came forward,” Jordan said. “This was an honest error. It has not cost anyone any money. There was nothing duplicitous about it. And I’m proud of our folks. There were no excuses.”
Riley said the budget department didn’t catch the levy error last year when it submitted the city’s paperwork finalizing Boise’s budget for fiscal year 2017, which runs from Oct. 1, 2016, to Sept. 30 of this year. That paperwork should have included a line item instructing the county to assess a special levy on top of the property taxes the city already collects for normal expenditures such as police, fire and parks. It didn’t, even though all of the budget documentation anticipated the additional money, Riley said.
The county’s tax notices don’t show all of the levies each taxing body assesses. Instead, they show one total levy for each taxing body, including the city of Boise. So nobody caught the error until last week, when the budget department met with the Ada County Clerk’s Office to review Boise’s budget proposal for next fiscal year. One of the county’s taxing experts pointed out that the city’s final budget documentation needed to include a special levy line.
That led to a review and the discovery of the error.
This type of mistake isn’t entirely uncommon, said Alan Dornfest, a property tax specialist for the Idaho State Tax Commission. About 15 years ago, Dornfest said, a school district failed to include a bond on its tax documentation. The district caught the error, but fixing it took a lot of paperwork, effort and expense. Dornfest wouldn’t say which school district he was talking about.
“Errors happen,” he said. “We don’t have a percentage or track the exact frequency, but I can tell war stories all day.”
The city will install several procedures to make sure this never happens again, Riley said. Those changes include increasing the number of people who review budget documents each year. All of those people will receive training on how to review the budgets to make sure there are no errors.
From now on, budget documents will include the form that the city submits to the county each year, finalizing its budget. Traditionally, that form was filled out administratively. Now it will be part of the budget packet the City Council reviews as it sets spending and revenue numbers. As the budget is fine-tuned, proposals for how to fill out that form will be included.
Finally, the city’s internal auditor will review the budget before it goes to the county.
Bieter said he doesn’t expect to fire anyone because of the budget department’s error.
“If I didn’t have confidence in our finance people, one, they probably wouldn’t be here still, or this would give you the way to get rid of people,” he said.