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Analysis: Tops on Bieter’s list: main library revamp, option to hike taxes

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News analysis by Don Day

BOISE – The Boise Weekly reports on the City of Boise’s budget planning for 2017. The City’s fiscal year starts next week.

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Boise’s mayor listed three top priorities according to the paper – including a revamp of the Boise Library! on Capitol Blvd. downtown. 

 An early rendering of part of Mark Rivers' failed
An early rendering of part of Mark Rivers’ failed “Library Blocks” project

The main branch of the Boise Public Library opened in a former warehouse at Capitol and River in 1973, and is starting to show signs of age.  At one point a decade ago, Mark Rivers – who turned 8th Street Marketplace into BoDo, hoped to renovate the Library and surrounding area into a $130-million so-called “Library Blocks” project, but that fell apart as Rivers left Boise in the rear-view mirror.

Now, according to BW, mayor Dave Bieter “would like to see us spend the next six months with financial analyses and some reach-out for philanthropic opportunities. ”

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The second priority on his list would be improving citizen access to city services.

Number three might be the most lofty — as the mayor of Idaho’s most populous city wants to find a way to add a local option tax.

That goal won’t be easy – and faces many hurdles.  A local option tax is a citizen-approved sales tax that only applies to a specific municipality or area. The idea has been bandied about to fund a so-called downtown streetcar.

The first roadblock might be the largest: the Idaho legislature.  The Statehouse and City Hall sit just three blocks apart geographically – but could not be further apart politically.

Bieter would have have to find a way to convince majorities of the Idaho house and senate (plus the governor) to approve a change to Idaho law to give citizens the right to vote to tax themselves.  Right now, local option sales taxes do exist in Idaho – but only in so-called resort cities under 10,000 residents. McCall, Sun Valley, Donnelly, Ketchum and Hailey all have local option taxes on the books.

Boise? Not so much.

Bieter himself casts doubt — but seems to indicate something is afoot that will help define the possibility soon.

“It remains to be seen if it’s going to be possible, and I should know a lot more in the next six to eight weeks,” he said according to BW.

In theory, Bieter could push for a statewide ballot initiative for the LOT – but getting a majority of voters on board would be an expensive proposition.

Even if state law could be changed – voters of the City of Boise would also have to vote to hike taxes.  Any project that would require an LOT tax increase would have to be popular with citizens. If, as raised by the Idaho Statesman recently, the idea is to funnel a sales tax increase toward a downtown trolley (or streetcar), it may be an uphill climb.

The Statesman reports Bieter favors a $111-million streetcar project. Even if federal grants could help pay for it, the paper reports $30-million would be left to the city — or, as Sven Berg notes – enough to fund four dozen parks.  And that’s just the startup cost.

Sales taxes are the most regressive form of taxation as they hit everyone equally.  It doesn’t matter if you’re living on minimum wage or in a house in the foothills – paying an extra penny or two on every dollar you spend for goods affects you the same monetarily.  However, two cents on the dollar doesn’t pinch the foothills resident quite the same way as it does for folks struggling to get by.  (Related reading: How local sales taxes target the poor and widen the income gap)

The popularity of an idea to raise sales taxes to fund something like a streetcar (whose merit has yet to be proven) remains to be seen.

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