How five mayors are going to change Idaho
Any time you get five Treasure Valley mayors together to talk about what ails their burgeoning region — growth, housing, transportation — there is bound to be some disagreement.
A Wednesday evening forum, convened by the Idaho Statesman and Boise State Public Radio, was no exception.
Boise Mayor David Bieter was a lone voice when he called for state government to shoulder more of the burden of financing affordable housing. Sure, there’s a state housing trust fund, he noted, but it’s like his personal “millionaire fund: I’m still a million bucks short.”
That’s no solution for a problem he said “permeates the whole state, especially with the growth we’re seeing.”
Nampa Mayor Debbie Kling argued otherwise. “Affordable housing is important,” she told the 150 or so participants — planners and a developer’s representative and just plain citizens. “If there’s a choice between the two, I’d rather have them fund transportation.”
But throughout 90 minutes of conversation about the region’s thorniest problems, there was a surprising amount of agreement among Bieter, Kling, Meridian’s Tammy de Weerd, Garden City’s John Evans and Eagle’s Stan Ridgeway.
The mayors represent Idaho’s two biggest cities and some of the Treasure Valley’s smaller population centers. They rued how few tools city governments have in a property rights state with a legislature that limits their authority. They bemoaned the lack of money available for roads and bike paths and houses young families can actually pay for. And, they all said their cities have updated or are currently revising their comprehensive plans ahead of schedule to factor in rapid growth.
They voiced broad consensus Wednesday night about the issue of a local option sales tax. To those of you who do not follow municipal budgeting as closely as the five mayors, here’s the short explanation:
City and county leaders want to have the authority to ask voters to tax themselves to pay for local initiatives. With few exceptions, the Idaho Legislature has blocked local governments from having that ability.
“You can control your roads, but if you don’t have any money to do anything, it makes it very difficult,” said Kling. “The funding model is challenging. We need to address the funding model.”
Kling was the only mayor present from Canyon County, where cities have control over their own roads. In contrast, the Ada County Highway District controls the roads in Idaho’s most populous county, home to Boise and Meridian and Eagle and Garden City.
The Statesman and Boise State Public Radio began organizing the mayors’ forum in May, as the chorus of Treasure Valley growth concerns became increasingly loud.
Although much of the attention in 2018 has focused on Boise’s construction, congestion and rapidly growing population, the effects of growth have been felt in every corner of the Treasure Valley. The media outlets wanted to hear how the region’s mayors were working together to manage change.
And it has been a lot to manage. In the past 18 years, the population of Ada and Canyon counties combined has jumped by nearly 250,000, or 54 percent. The Treasure Valley now has about 700,000 residents, according to COMPASS, the regional planning agency, which projects that it will crest 1 million by 2039.
Housing is in scarce supply; prices are rising, but wages are not. So affordability is a rallying cry, along with concerns about what is being lost as southwestern Idaho bulks up.
Three of the mayors who spoke Wednesday — Bieter, de Weerd and Evans — came to office during an earlier growth spurt and helped their cities manage the Great Recession that followed. Ridgeway was elected in 2015, Kling, in 2017.
Many of the questions at the media forum came from the audience. Several participants wanted to know what the mayors would give up to improve transportation in their cities at a time when residents are clamoring for bike lanes and wider roads and better parking options — all at once.
De Weerd’s answer seemed to surprise her fellow elected officials — in a good way.
“Do we necessarily need sidewalks on both sides of the street?” she asked. “Can you give up sidewalks on one side and have improved bike lanes? ... I would give up a sidewalk on one side of the road ... and have a more efficient way of moving people outside of their cars, whether it’s on foot or bicycle or those electric scooters.”
Ridgeway: “I want some of those electric scooters.”
“You can have them. Right now,” de Weerd said, reflecting on the chaos scooters have brought to many cities.
The sweetest question of the night came from a 10-year-old named Kaitlin Brooks. “How are you going to make Idaho a better place?” she asked.
And the most pointed answer came from Garden City’s Evans. “We all have an obligation in this environment we are in today to set an example in the way we treat each other,” he said. “We don’t all agree on things. We have different global, political positions.
“I want to compliment my peers here,” Evans continued. “Even when we don’t agree with each other, we’re respectful. We, frankly, honor each other. ... I think as elected leaders we all carry quite a responsibility load. So, my personal aspiration is to attempt at some level to live up to that.”
The audience applauded.