Crime has increased, and the police department needs more officers. The streets need work. The police and fire unions are negotiating new contracts.
Population growth promises economic growth, but it threatens good farmland. Downtown still has many vacant storefronts.
The needs outweigh the tax money available in Nampa. “But I don’t want to raise taxes,” said Debbie Kling, now in her fourth month as mayor of the city of 98,000, Idaho’s third-largest.
Kling, 60, a former president and CEO of the Nampa Chamber of Commerce, was elected to a four-year term as Nampa’s second female mayor in November with 53.2 percent of the vote. She beat one-term former Mayor Bob Henry, who took less than 40 percent.
In her campaign, Kling said she wanted to address persistent problems in Nampa, such as poverty, the stagnant downtown and aging infrastructure. She said she wanted to develop a better long-term vision for the city.
Already, there has been some friction between her and the City Council. Some council members say her communication with them has fallen short. She complained that one councilman improperly went around her to schedule meetings with federal officials about wastewater.
But she has drawn praise, too. At least one councilman says Kling’s communication is getting better. And Canyon County Commissioner Tom Dale, who served 12 years as Nampa’s mayor before losing to Henry in 2013, said Kling appears to be on the right track.
“She hasn’t made any rash statements. She hasn’t made any radical shifts of policy,” Dale said. “She’s working right now to establish a foundation of knowledge. And that doesn’t come overnight. That takes some pretty intensive time of intentional education effort.”
‘Broken leg on a good horse’
Economic growth — the arrival of new jobs, people and buildings — can spread out the cost of government and lower the city’s property tax rate. But homes for those newcomers are replacing farm fields that surround Nampa, raising concerns about the future of farming in a traditionally agricultural county.
A partial solution might be found in solving a different problem: downtown Nampa, whose lack of prosperity has frustrated city leaders for years. Several new businesses have opened there recently, though many commercial spaces are still vacant.
City Councilman Victor Rodriguez compares downtown to “a broken leg on a good horse.”
“It could be the hub of our community, and it’s not,” Rodriguez said. “We just can’t seem to get it going, because we’re not the property owners.”
Kling wants to see more housing downtown to accommodate the people moving in. Many of the people moving to Nampa are baby boomers, she says, a generation that has shown a fondness for urban living. And filling those storefronts would be easier with a strong supply of customers living, working and playing downtown.
Some downtown business executives think Kling should do whatever it takes to encourage development downtown that will attract more people.
Rob Pierce, manager of Le Baron’s Honker Cafe near the corner of 2nd Avenue South and 12th Avenue South, wants something big — a movie theater or concert venue, even a big-box store like Target.
“So far, the revitalization of downtown Nampa has been more of a thing that people talk about,” Pierce said. “I haven’t seen it.”
RachelleChavez, a co-owner of Mustard Seed, a shop on the northwest corner of 13th Avenue South and 3rd Street South that sells restored home decor items, would welcome a big attraction, too. But lots of small stores could be just as effective at reviving downtown, she said.
“The city needs to do whatever they can — incentives, whatever they can — to bring in new stuff,” Chavez said.
Councilman Rick Hogaboam is wary of incentives like tax breaks that primarily benefit wealthy people who might not even live in Nampa. Many of downtown’s vacant real estate belongs to rich owners who aren’t as motivated to fill them as new buyers might be, he said.
“There’s a challenge when you’re trying to incentivize people who are already multimillionaires to improve property,” he said. “That kind of smacks of corporate welfare.”
Hogaboam said he’d rather find incentives for small businesses and startups.
In the short term, road construction is the biggest problem for downtown businesses.
The road in front of Le Baron’s is closed. To attract customers, the restaurant is advertising “construction specials” like two eggs, hashbrowns and toast for $2.99 or a hamburger and fries for $4.99.
Still, the project is crushing business, Pierce said. Shortly after 1 p.m. on April 11, the restaurant had two occupied tables and a couple sitting at the bar. Without construction, Pierce said, Le Baron’s would have had 15-20 active tables.
“My waitresses have kids and families. And their income is gouged, to say the least,” Pierce said.
Chavez, the Mustard Seed’s co-owner, said construction in front of her store is especially hard because it limits her ability to display items outside and makes it harder for customers to get to her. Once the project’s over, though, she thinks it’ll make access easier and safer.
As hard as construction is hitting existing businesses, Kling thinks this may be the best time for it. Once the work is done, marketing downtown to new businesses and developers should be easier, she said.
Chief of staff or gatekeeper?
Kling and council member are figuring out how to work with each other.
Early this month, Kling rebuked Councilman Bruce Skaug for setting up a meeting with federal officials over upgrades needed at the city’s wastewater treatment plant to comply with federal water-quality standards, the Idaho Press-Tribune reported. Kling said she learned about the meeting after the fact. Skaug told the Press-Tribune he couldn’t reach King beforehand.
Councilman Randy Haverfield said it’s been difficult to contact the mayor and find out what she’s planning or thinking. Instead, Haverfield said, he has had to go through Bobby Sanchez, the mayor’s chief of staff.
“There definitely is a breakdown in communication on a personal level,” Haverfield said. “There’s been a process of trying to get her to open up to us, or at least to reach out to us with questions at times. But she’s got her way of doing things, and she’s learning the ropes, I guess, her own way.”
Kling said Sanchez is her right hand, not her gatekeeper. “I just need help,” she said. “There is so much to do each day.”
Kling said Haverfield and other council members might not be used to her style, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t communicating. While her predecessors might have been less formal, Kling said she uses more consistent methods for keeping the council informed on her activities.
“The council is more up to date, probably, as a whole than they ever have been,” Kling said. “It’s just a different style of communication.”
Councilman Victor Rodriguez said he initially shared Haverfield’s frustrations with Kling’s communication — or lack of it. But Kling has become more responsive lately, Rodriguez said.
“I’ve been impressed with her,” he said. “She’s got a good head on her shoulders. We’ve just got to support her and help her along.”
Hogaboam praised Kling for sending council members an “extremely informative” weekly update “about all things happening in the city.”
Kling is looking for savings in the city budget through running a tighter shop. For example, the Public Works Department projects that it can save $600,000 a year by hiring engineers and support staff instead of contracting with consultants for work the current staff can’t keep up with.
Kling also has ordered a “deep dive” on all city departments to assess each one’s effectiveness and find ways to improve them.
Public Works Director Norm Holm, a 40-year employee of the city, said he’s grown to appreciate the “deep dive” process.
“It seemed a little bit of an interruption at the time, but I guess having gone through it now, I see that maybe an interruption like that is necessary to be sure you’re still on target,” he said. “We get so caught up in our work that sometimes we do lose a little perspective.”
There’s a limit, though, to the savings Kling can wring out of City Hall.
“We’re not going to be able find it all in efficiencies,” she said.
To solve the wastewater problem, Nampa will voters in May whether to raise sewer rates to finance a $165 million plant upgrade.
The number of Nampa police officers has been declining , relative to the population,for a decade, according to a graph Kling showed a crowd that gathered Tuesday at Columbia High School for her first State of the City address. Perhaps related, Nampa now has the highest crime rate in the Treasure Valley.
Kling wants to hire more police officers. That will cost money.
But she said tax relief is on the way, because residents are set to pay off oldbonds that have been keeping levy rates high.
“We’ve got about four to six years that we’re going to have a tight budget,” Kling said. “But you know what? I can see the light at the end of that tunnel.”