A bill that would require a public vote on any public projects using urban renewal money — such as the proposed new Boise main library and a new sports stadium — sailed through the Idaho House on Monday.
The House voted 59-11 to send the bill to the Senate, where Boise Mayor David Bieter hopes it will die.
Bieter said it’s too early to fully know how the bill would affect Boise’s library and stadium projects. But it’s frustrating, he said, to see the urban renewal law being tweaked again and again.
“They’ve amended the urban renewal stuff two times in the last four or five years,” Bieter said. “You learn to work with it and then they change them again. It’s definitely a disruption to business.”
Urban renewal money comes from local property taxes. Currently, a public vote is required if 51 percent or more of a project’s cost is funded with urban renewal money. The spending requires approval from 60 percent of voters. The new bill would lower that to 55 percent, but it would also do away with the 51 percent project-cost threshold and prohibit the use of any urban renewal money without voter approval.
“Ultimately, I think the voter ought to have a say, not a group of unelected individuals spending my property tax dollars,” said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who introduced the bill.
Urban renewal districts were established, Moyle said, to address urban blight. That’s no longer the case, he said.
“We’re building libraries, city halls at the expense of the overlying districts,” he said. “They’re the ones paying the price.”
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 existing taxing districts, such as schools, cities and counties, 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.
Rep. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa, who presented the bill on the floor, said urban renewal funds are increasingly being used to pay debt service on large-scale community investments that burden taxpayers for many years.
He said Nampa’s new library was built a few years ago with the expectation that several multistory office complexes would also be built by a developer. Ultimately, the developer decided not to build the offices, affecting the ability of the urban renewal funds to be repaid.
“If you’re going to use urban renewal dollars, you should go to the taxpayers, present the plan and then submit yourself to the results of that election,” Anderst said.
The bill would not apply to infrastructure improvements such as roads, curbs, sidewalks, water and sewer lines, he said.
Opponents said deleting the 51 percent threshold could require public votes on minor renovations like new carpeting or remodeling bathrooms.
“It seems cost-inefficient and to be needlessly hampering local government,” said Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise.
Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, said his city’s urban renewal district created a pocket park a few years ago and later gave it to the city. If the city later decided to add restrooms to the park, that might trigger the requirement for a public vote, if this bill passes, he said.
“I don’t believe that the intention of the original urban renewal rewrites of these sections anticipate that type of thing,” said Clow, who voted against the bill. “They always had some kind of a minimum for use of urban renewal money. It was 51 percent.”
But Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said residents should have a say. “The right to vote is so important, no government should ever fear a vote of its people,” said Gannon, who voted for the bill.
Gannon has worked with Boise Working Together, a new group seeking to place on the ballot initiatives for a public vote on the Boise library and stadium proposals.
Still-unfinished plans call for using Boise urban renewal funds to help build an estimated $50 million public stadium just west of Downtown. The library plans tentatively call for using an estimated $15 million in urban renewal money for parking in a garage planned to accompany a new private building across River Street from the new library. Money for the garage would not be subject to a public vote.
The proposed library was originally projected to cost more than $100 million, but city leaders have pledged to hold spending to $80 million to $85 million. Currently, the city expects philanthropic fundraising to provide $18 million; $15 million to come from the Capital City Development Corp., Boise’s urban renewal agency, 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.
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, 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. Recently, Greenstone has raised its estimate of the project cost to $50 million.
Greenstone Managing Principal Chris Schoen also runs Agon Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Hawks. Both companies are based in Atlanta.
Boise’s urban renewal agency usually uses its money to build parking garages and brick sidewalks, plant street trees, install utilities, connect sewers and make other improvements to foster private development.