Boise & Garden City

Boise may not borrow to pay for new library after all. What that means for your taxes

Boise may not need to borrow money to help pay for a new main library after all.

Mayor David Bieter told the Idaho Statesman that the city is “studying what it would look like” to “pay cash for it” — a step that could save the city up to $15 million in long-term interest costs for the library.

Separately, Bieter on Friday endorsed a citizens group’s call for the Boise City Council to adopt an ordinance requiring an election on the library and a separate ordinance requiring an election on a proposed sports stadium.

A petition drive gathered enough signatures to put the ordinances on this November’s city ballot, where a majority vote would enact them. But state law allows the council to take the measures off the ballot by adopting the ordinances first.

Bieter’s pay-cash proposal would not change the $85 million cap that his administration has pledged to place on the library’s construction costs. It would simply shift an estimated $30 million that city officials had expected to raise through debt directly to the tax rolls.

“We’ve been very conservative and made sure that we saved as much cash as we could,” Bieter said in an interview Wednesday.

Bieter spokesman Mike Journee said Thursday that the pay-cash proposal likely wouldn’t raise property taxes. “There has been no discussion of a potential tax increase,” Journee said.

Cost has drawn opposition

Bieter’s proposal to rely on existing city revenues echoes what he and the City Council did more than a decade ago after a $38 million bond issue to pay for branch libraries fell short of the required two-thirds majority in an election. The city opened the branches anyway, starting in 2008, by using surplus revenue.

The mayor said the cash option was only one the city is considering, but it would “represent considerable savings, along the tune of maybe even $15 million,” in interest and other financing costs.

The new library would replace the current main library at 715 S. Capitol Blvd. and would go in the same spot. Boise brought on world-renowned Safdie Architects, whose projects include the 225,000-square-foot Salt Lake City Public Library, to design it. The library would have 115,000 square feet and would be accompanied by a plaza, event space, and an arts and history center.

The project’s cost has generated opposition and contributed to the successful petition drive. A cost estimate the city commissioned last year for Safdie’s proposal totaled $103 million, but city officials have said they would hold costs to $85 million with as-yet-unspecified cost cutting.

The plan until now has been to pay the $85 million with $22 million in city cash reserves, $30 million in long-term lease financing (not including the estimated $15 million in interest), $18 million in philanthropic donations and $15 million in property taxes from an urban-renewal district to pay for a new parking structure.

Shifting the $30 million to cash would require City Council approval, Bieter spokesman Mike Journee said Friday.

Tax revenues grow fast

Thanks to Boise’s boom, the city’s budget has grown robustly, from $515 million in fiscal year 2016 to $753 million in fiscal 2019, according to numbers shared by Journee.

It’s possible the $30 million could be reduced if the fund-raising campaign raises more than $18 million. The campaign, led by novelist Anthony Doerr and former Micron Technology CEO Mark Durcan, has been raising money privately since last fall.

The cash option comes as the county clerk’s office reported Friday that it had finished verifying two petitions from the group Boise Working Together. The language of the petitions (and the proposed ordinances that would come from them) call for citywide elections before spending $25 million or more for the library or $5 million or more for a sports stadium.

The proposed baseball and soccer stadium would be built for the city in the West End by Atlanta-based Greenstone Properties between Main Street and Fairview Avenue, and between Whitewater Park Boulevard and 27th Street. The stadium is expected to cost about $50 million, but it is not clear how much of that would come from the city.

Boise Working Together president Adelia Simplot sent a letter Tuesday to council members calling on them to use their authority to adopt both measures and pre-empt the November elections. She called council adoption the “most prudent option.”

Understanding the ‘vote to vote’

Bieter endorsed cuoncil passage a few hours after Ada County’s final certification of the Boise Working Together petitions. He said he endorsed council passage in part because he was concerned about how complex “a vote to vote” may be.

The “vote to vote” is shorthand for the fact that if city voters in November first voted to enact the ordinances, they would then have to vote again in a subsequent election on the library and stadium projects themselves.

The council will consider the proposal at a work session at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. City officials will ask the council to schedule a public hearing on Tuesday, June 25.

“It is important that we respect the democratic process and resident engagement represented by these two petitions,” Bieter said in a news release Friday. “Adopting them allows us to protect the intent of the petitioners and ensures that we follow a simplified public process for all of our residents.”

Lauren McLean, the council president who is challenging Bieter in the November election, told the Statesman that she has reached out to Boise Working Together to better understand the group’s position before she forms an opinion about council enactment of the ordinances.

Her goal is to “ensure there is as little confusion as possible for voters so that our community can have a fair and transparent conversation,” she wrote in a text message.

Meanwhile, the stadium ordinance is causing its own confusion.

Bieter’s office noted in Friday’s news release that Greenstone still has not made a formal proposal to the city since it abandoned its original site on Americana Boulevard near River Street last summer in favor of the Main and Whitewater site a half mile northwest.

“Without that proposal, it is unclear what role the city would have, if any, in the project or exactly what a ballot measure would be asking of voters,” the release said.

Business Editor David Staats contributed.

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Hayley covers local government for the Idaho Statesman with a primary focus on Boise. Previously, she worked for the Salisbury Daily Times, the Hartford Courant, the Denver Post and McClatchy’s D.C. bureau. Hayley graduated from Ohio University with degrees in journalism and political science.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.