Boise & Garden City

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter angling for new conservation levy

A new conservation levy would have a longer list of ways the money can be spent than the 2001 version, which was set aside for protection of open space in the Boise Foothills.

Wildlife habitat, water quality and recreation projects are a few items the city of Boise could undertake if its voters pass a new conservation levy. The projects also wouldn’t be limited to the Foothills. The Boise River and land immediately surrounding it, as well as pockets of open space inside city limits, could get some attention, too.

The city has a lot of work to do before bringing a new conservation levy before voters. Mayor Dave Bieter’s office is still working out the proposal’s exact language, so the dollar amount and exact spending avenues could change. The City Council would have to approve putting it on a ballot. The deadline for submitting it to the county elections office is Sept. 14.

But there seems to be support for it, and not just at City Hall. A poll last month found “overwhelming” enthusiasm among the public for some kind of nature-protecting tax measure, said Courtney Washburn, Community Conservation Director for the Idaho Conservation League. Washburn declined to share the full results of the poll, which a coalition of local and national conservation groups, including Idaho Conservation League, The Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land and Land Trust of the Treasure Valley, commissioned.

Those groups have officially asked the city of Boise to put a levy on the November ballot.

Meanwhile, a consultant that’s developing a management plan for city-owned Foothills land has found strong public support for buying more land and finding ways to build public connections between the pieces of ground Boise already manages, Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said.

In 2001, Boise residents passed a two-year, $10 million levy that dedicated money for preservation of open space in the Foothills. Besides buying parcels, the city has acquired easements across private property and worked out agreements with other governments to protect land in the Foothills. Today, about $1.5 million is left of the $10 million the 2001 levy raised.

The last time the city of Boise asked voters to back a tax increase for open space preservation was in 2012. That 20-year bond measure failed, even though 61 percent of Boise voters were in favor of it. Idaho law requires a two-thirds majority to approve long-term debt.

Even though he worked hard to promote the 2012 bond, Bieter was optimistic about a future chance to raise money for conservation.

“There’s just too much good news to feel bad,” he said the day after the bond failed.

Bieter is saying the same thing these days. The relative popularity of the 2012 bond planted the seed for this year’s push.

“When you get over 60 percent of folks approving of a direction, you really ought to find a way to make that happen,” he said.

A two-year levy, which Bieter is considering this time and the conservation groups are backing, requires only a simple majority for passage. The trade-off is that a two-year levy requires a sharper tax increase than a bond, which is paid off over a much longer term.

A $10 million, two-year levy would cost a homeowner who lives in a $150,000 house about $22 a year more in taxes.

Organized opposition hasn’t materialized yet, but that’s not surprising since the levy’s not official yet.

The Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce opposed the 2001 levy, as did the Building Contractors Association of Southwestern Idaho.

Spokeswoman Caroline Merritt said the Chamber of Commerce has heard about a possible levy but hasn’t taken a position on it yet because its members don’t know the details yet. Neither has the Contractors Association.

Big landowners are in the same boat. Michael DeVore is vice president of operations for Ketchum-based developer 5B Investments, which owns the 336-unit Liberty Lake Apartments between the Connector, Curtis Road, Allumbaugh Street and Fairview Avenue, and is building 287 apartments on ParkCenter Boulevard.

A tax levy would hit 5B harder than homeowners because the company isn’t eligible for Idaho’s tax exemption on homes whose owners live in them. The Ada County Assessor valued Liberty Lake Apartments at $16.7 million, meaning taxes on it would go up almost $10,000 over those two years if Boise passes the kind of levy that’s being talked about.

DeVore said the 5B has small profit margins on apartment complexes like Liberty Lake.

“As in most businesses, when prices go up, we have to pass those on to our consumer,” he said.

On the other hand, DeVore wouldn’t say he outright opposes the levy. His company, like many developers, is bullish on Boise, which has low vacancy rates all over the city. Access to recreation, wildlife and clean water make Boise more appealing and are part of the reason demand for housing is so intense here. There’s value in making the city even more appealing, DeVore said.

What DeVore doesn’t want to see is levy money being used for something other than what promoters are saying. The prospect of vague wording on the ballot worries him.

A tax increase won’t be too onerous if it goes away in two years, DeVore said. But if Boise gets in the habit of asking for new levies every few years, he said, that would be a concern.

“Government and/or businesses, once you get an appetite for a revenue stream, it’s hard to give that up,” DeVore said.