Dave Bieter wants to make Boise the most livable city in the country, but our mayor doesn’t explain how he measures progress or even provide his definition of livable. Livability being mostly a function of the economy, affordability, and culture, it is likely not within a government’s ability to deliver in any event.
But setting aside the livability aspiration, city leaders do have the power to deliver responsive and responsible government. On these more concrete metrics like good governance, planning, and accountability, the city’s track record is poor. This lets down residents today, but more disturbingly, the resulting lack of trust puts city government in a passive role during major
growth. The boom is largely happening to the city while elected officials watch, rather than being actively guided by robust leadership.
Sven Berg has a fine piece in the Idaho Statesman detailing Boise’s mismanagement of a 2014 capital bond. Voters approved $17 million of debt to modernize four fire stations and build a new firefighter training center. The budget for the projects has now doubled to $34 million. The three-year schedule, ending this year, is now extended for another five years. As the city admits, its planning was grossly naïve and irresponsible.
One might expect these revelations to accompany a reassessment of the undertaking. Instead, the city is repeating its common pattern of making up budget overruns with additional tax dollars. A major part of the 2014 bond’s allure was the opportunity to get a good deal on construction during a lull in commercial development. It is unlikely the measure would have
the same support when pitched as only buying two or three stations for the same $17 million price tag during the highest commercial construction costs in memory.
This is not the city’s only recent embarrassment from a successful ballot measure. After voters passed an open-ended open space levy in 2015, the city forgot to collect it in 2017 and had to return to the ballot to authorize a make-up year.
Nor is it the only bait-and-switch budget increase. After water started leaking from the fountain in front of City Hall, the city planned $1 million to rebuild the entryway. This was revised to a $3.8 million project after receiving external estimates.
One could chalk these up as the usual tales of government incompetence. But these and other lowball estimates for major projects appear to originate in the political wing of City Hall. Bieter presumably doesn’t want a replay of his trolley folly, which repeatedly made taxpayers suffer sticker shock. The evidence better fits intentionally misleading spin by political actors than a
problem with the professional staff in city hall.
In this environment, we’re told to trust our officials in closed-door discussions about a taxpayer-funded downtown stadium. Concerns are met with assurances that nothing is being seriously considered despite detailed per-agency allocation of contributions and the creation of a redevelopment district.
Opposition to the stadium takes for granted that the city is again lowballing construction costs, making rosy assumptions about attracting a minor league soccer team, and will cover the difference with unbudgeted funds. Even by the city’s own projections, the stadium needs to attract a second professional sports team to break even. At the end of 30 years, the city would own the stadium. This seems like a great deal until one remembers that the current Memorial Stadium in Garden City is itself only 30 years old and is already outdated enough to have no value despite sitting on free land and coming with free parking.
In Berg’s piece, the city says it has learned lessons from the fire department bond fiasco. It will use more realistic pricing assumptions and do more diligent planning. Well into his fourth term, Bieter has used up the benefit of the doubt. A series of modest, well-executed projects would rebuild trust and provide some political capital to spend on prestige projects like stadiums and downtown trolleys.
Instead, the city is moving forward with the largest capital expense in its history: a new library estimated by its designer to cost well over $100 million. The city tells us it can build it for under $80 million.
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