A bill to require a public vote on any public projects using urban renewal money — such as the proposed Boise library and a new sports stadium — is making headway in the Legislature.
The House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted 14-2 on Wednesday to advance the bill to the House floor, with Reps. Mat Erpelding and Rob Mason, both Boise Democrats, voting against it. Under the bill, 55 percent of voters would have to approve the spending.
Rep. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa, one of the bill’s sponsors, denied that the bill was aimed at Boise. Instead, he said it was a continuation of changes the Legislature made in 2016 to restrict the use of urban renewal funding for publicly owned buildings.
The 2016 legislation required a public vote if 51 percent or more of a project’s cost was to be funded with urban renewal money. It required approval from 60 percent of voters. The new bill would prohibit the use of any urban renewal money unless 55 percent of voters approve.
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“For the purpose of infrastructure and private economic development, which builds tax-increment growth, we wanted to retain urban renewal as a tool for that,” Anderst said. “But if it comes to funding of municipal structures, the citizens of the districts in which those questions were being asked should have a vote.”
Still-unfinished plans call for using an estimated $40 million of Boise urban renewal funds to build a public stadium just west of Downtown. The library plans call for using an estimated $15 million in urban renewal money for a parking garage across River Street from the new facility.
Urban renewal funds work like this: A city establishes an urban renewal district. Under Idaho law, it can last up to 20 years, during which taxing districts continue to collect whatever taxes they collected when the district was formed, but no more. Any new property-tax revenue — the so-called tax increment — resulting from new development or higher property values goes to the district.
Boise’s urban renewal agency, the Capital City Development Corp., uses its money to build parking garages and brick sidewalks, plant street trees and make other improvements.
Last week, Mike Journee, spokesman for Boise Mayor David Bieter, expressed disappointment with the bill. He said he believes the legislation targets Boise.
“We think this is the result of conservative ideologues — members of the Republican Party — who see a progressive agenda being successful in the city of Boise and they’re attacking it,” Journee said in a phone interview. Bieter and most of Boise’s City Council are Democrats, although municipal elections are nonpartisan.
Without the provision requiring a public vote only if 51 percent or more of a project’s cost comes from urban renewal funding, Hethe Clark, a Boise development attorney, told the committee that the proposal would hamper urban renewal districts and force them to seek public votes to install a $1,000 park bench or other minor items.
“When it comes to these types of projects, it’s important that there be certainty and that the urban renewal districts have the ability to make commitments early on in the process,” Clark said. “To me, it’s a huge problem and makes urban renewal districts far less effective if they can’t act on these projects like helping with sidewalks, helping with bus stops, helping with facade improvements.”
Erpelding said the bill would “really hamstring the urban renewal districts in terms of using any public dollars.”
House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who introduced the bill, said urban renewal districts bypass a state constitutional provision that requires two-thirds approval from voters for projects that take on debt.
“When our founding fathers put the two-thirds vote in the Constitution for debt, I think we should go back to that standard,” Moyle said. “These are public dollars that in a sense those of us that live outside Boise didn’t have a vote on when you took the revenue away from our roads and our county and other services.”
Some people who testified expressed frustration with the city of Boise about not being more transparent about its plans for the library and how it plans to pay for it. The proposed library was originally projected to cost more than $100 million, but city leaders have pledged to hold spending to $85 million.
Currently, the city is looking to spend $80 million to $85 million. It expects philanthropic fundraising to provide $18 million; $15 million to come from the Capital City Development Corp. for the parking garage; $15 million to come from city of Boise capital funds; and $32 million to $37 million to come from long-term lease financing.
No decision has been made on whether to include urban renewal funding for the library, although there have been discussions about using it for a parking garage at a privately owned parcel across the street that houses the Foothills School.
Under plans submitted to the city when developers were interested in building a stadium along Americana Boulevard, the city would contribute $3 million, the Greater Boise Auditorium District $5 million and CCDC would borrow the rest of the stadium’s roughly $40 million cost. The developer, Greenstone Properties of Atlanta, would contribute $1 million.
Greenstone abandoned that site and now hopes to build its stadium for the Boise Hawks minor league baseball team and for soccer in the West End, on the south side of Main Street between Whitewater Park Boulevard and 27th Street. Managing Principal Chris Schoen also runs Agon Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Hawks.
Tom Hays, a fifth-generation Boise resident and a Democrat, said he supports the bill.
“We Idahoans would like to have a say when we set up to pay taxes into perpetuity,” Hays said. “I feel like whether or not you support the stadium or the library, I think we should have a chance to decide.”
Even with the bill, a group concerned with the cost of the library and the use of public money for the stadium is planning to collect signatures on a pair of initiatives on the two projects. Boise Working Together has until the end of April to collect 5,000 signatures to get the measures on the ballot.