Critics of Boise officials’ plans to spend millions of public dollars on a stadium and a new main library have pushed since December for citizen votes on the projects. They got some help this past week when a bill that might force elections moved swiftly toward final approval in the Legislature.
Among the drivers of the let’s-have-an-election movement are five Treasure Valley leaders, three of them lawmakers.
A group called Boise Working Together coalesced around a member of the Simplot family and a Democratic legislator from Boise to launch a petition drive for an initiative that would put both projects on the ballot. Former Boise State University President Bob Kustra put his prestige behind the effort.
And two Republican legislators — a longtime House leader from Star and a new Senate committee chairman from Caldwell — guided a bill to require elections for any municipal building (such as the library) or sports stadium that costs $1 million or more and uses urban-renewal funds, which come from property taxes.
Proponents of the projects say both the stadium and the library are investments that will help make Boise a better place to live and would bring development and tax money to the area, but these outspoken individuals say a citizen vote is most important. Meet the five:
1. Adelia Simplot
Simplot is the president of Boise Working Together. A self-described “preservationist,” Simplot thinks the city doesn’t give its residents enough opportunity to make clear their thoughts on projects like the $50 million stadium proposed west of Downtown.
Her biggest problem is the traffic it would bring. She said the city is still trying to adjust to traffic from its rapid growth in the past several years, and she said a big complex put in without properly changing the traffic patterns around it is “not right.”
“It’s just amazing voters haven’t had any say with the city so far,” Simplot said. “It’s worthwhile to fight on this.”
She became a part of Boise Working Together after the city announced plans to relocate The Cabin, the historic log building just south of the main library on Capitol Boulevard, to make way for the planned $85 million replacement library. She does not want the building moved.
Simplot, who is 83, was instrumental in the establishment of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Downtown Boise and helped with the creation of the Basque Block. Her late husband, Richard, was a son of J.R. Simplot, the Idahoan who founded an international potato empire.
2. State Rep. John Gannon
Gannon, a Democrat representing District 17, is another leader of Boise Working Together.
When the House approved its version of the bill on March 11, he argued that residents should have a say in what their cities do.
“The right to vote is so important, no government should ever fear a vote of its people,” said Gannon, who was one of the 59 representatives to vote in favor of the bill. Eleven voted against it.
Gannon, a lawyer, served one term in the House in the early 1990s, later led the Depot Bench Neighborhood Association, and rejoined the House after winning a 2012 election.
3. Bob Kustra
Fresh off his 15 years as president of Boise State University, Kustra is not outright against the stadium but believes citizens should have the chance to weigh in.
Kustra, now a columnist for the Statesman and a citizen member of its editorial board, wrote in a recent column that “groupthink [is] overwhelming the decision-making process” on the library and clouded the decisions on The Cabin relocation.
“Given the enormity of these two projects in terms of cost and space in a city facing serious congestion issues, city residents deserve the same consideration that taxpayers of school districts have when districts go to the voters for bond issues, often for amounts less costly than these two projects total,” he wrote in January.
4. State Rep. Mike Moyle
Moyle, a Republican from Star and the longtime Idaho House majority leader, introduced House Bill 217, saying he thinks “the voter ought to have a say, not a group of unelected individuals spending my property tax dollars.”
He told the Statesman on Friday that he wasn’t interested in projects such as the stadium “being bought by out-of-state interests.” He argued that it is important to respect the choices of the people and that forcing projects through without a vote was counterproductive.
“I think it’s very important for voters to participate,” he said during the House Revenue and Taxation Committee’s Friday hearing on the amendments to the bill.
The bill sailed through the House over some Democrats’ objections, was amended in the Senate, and returned to the House, where the committee accepted the Senate changes and sent the revised bill to the full chamber. If the House approves the changes, the measure will go to Gov. Brad Little for his signature.
5. State Sen. Jim Rice
Rice, a fifth-term Republican representing Caldwell’s District 10, is the new chairman of the Idaho Senate’s Local Government and Taxation Committee. When House Bill 217, which is often called the “stadium bill,” made its way to the Senate, he sat on the bill, saying it wasn’t tailored narrowly enough.
But Rice, a lawyer, then worked with fellow legislators, including the bill’s House sponsors, to modify the bill and revive it. The original bill would have required an election for any city building or stadium that used urban-renewal money, no matter how little. The new bill requires an election on any project costing $1 million or more that is funded by at least 51 percent non-federal public money and that includes but is not limited to urban-renewal funds.
The revised bill has left Boise officials scrambling to figure out what it means for their projects. Rice himself isn’t sure.
“I don’t know if it would affect the stadium project at all,” he said in a phone interview Thursday.
Mayor David Bieter saw the original bill as an attack on Boise’s plans, but Rice contends the amended bill is not.
“Urban-renewal is an important tool,” he said. “We need it to work properly.”
Urban renewal: a primer
Urban-renewal funds work like this: A city council 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 within the district’s territory 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 to be spent on public improvements to foster new development.
Both the proposed new library and the proposed stadium would be in urban renewal districts. In Boise, urban renewal projects are administered by the Capital City Development Corp., or CCDC, the city’s urban renewal agency.
The library project was once anticipated to cost more than $100 million, but city officials later said the spending would stay between $80 and $85 million. That money is expected to come from $18 million in philanthropy, $15 million in CCDC funding, $15 million from other city funds and $32 million to $37 million in lease financing.
The stadium is estimated to cost $50 million, $3 million of which would come from the city, according to previous Statesman reporting. Up to $9 million would come from a hotel room tax through the Greater Boise Auditorium District, according to Todd Dvorak of Strategies 360, a communications firm representing the stadium’s developer, Greenstone Properties of Atlanta.
Most of the remaining expense would be covered with bonds through CCDC. The bonds would be repaid with increased property taxes — the tax increment — created by the surrounding development and lease payments of more than $1 million per year made by Agon Sports, which owns the Boise Hawks and the soccer team that would play at the new stadium.
Business Editor David Staats contributed.