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Analysis: Wild ride ahead for Boise in 2021

Boise politics watchers, hold on to your hats. It’s going to be an interesting year in the City of Trees.

2019 was a year people won’t soon forget in Boise with the raucous mayoral election and ballot initiatives over the main library and sports park, but more shakeups are coming.

Next year, Boise City Council has three seats up for grabs, which will be elected by district instead of at-large for the first time. Council members will also be contending with the financial and social fall out of COVID-19 to put together a complex budget for fiscal year 2022.

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And, of course, there is still the growing affordable housing crisis, an underfunded public transit system waiting for passengers once the pandemic is over and questions over what to do with the aging main library after Mayor Bieter’s proposal went on an indefinite pause.

All of this (and more!) will be covered on BoiseDev.com in the next year, so hang on tight and follow along.

A tight budget

Budget season in Boise used to be a relatively easy cruise to the finish.

For sixteen straight years under the Bieter administration, Boise City Council took the maximum allowed property tax increase under Idaho Code for both new construction and the 3% base increase on top. Few residents paid much attention or came to public hearings on the budget and the city enjoyed years of flush finances to hire more staff, build out an expansive parks system and plan for a $100 million main library.

That started to change in 2019 as property taxes ballooned and residents began to question the city’s spending priorities as rents and housing prices started to get untenable for longtime Boiseans. And then, COVID-19 hit and took the bottom out of the economy earlier this year and turned municipal budgets upside down.

In response to the pandemic, Mayor Lauren McLean’s proposed budget did not take any base increase and only raised taxes roughly 1% to account for new construction. The city’s budget also shrunk from the previous year by $35 million as she instituted minor cuts across departments to weather the pandemic. Many residents saw their property taxes go down.

So, what’s next?

The city council will have a fine line to walk trying to balance residents’ demands to control property tax increases as the values of their homes continue to rise and also meet the needs of the community. Idaho’s sales tax numbers remained strong so far through the pandemic, but the city saw hits in revenues from canceled Parks and Recreation programming and decreases in parking fees. 

There is a demand for more services as the economy continues to contend with the pandemic and address existing needs, but the pressure of property taxes on homeowners will also likely weigh heavily on the minds of council members. They will also be navigating making these decisions in an election year with the possibility of the Idaho State Legislature shaking up the property tax formula in the 2021 session next month.

A new look for Boise City Council

The election will also look different in Boise next fall.

As the result of a bill passed in the 2020 Legislative session, Boise City Council members will be elected by district for the first time. The 2020 bill left open some questions as to how it will be implemented, including how the lines will be drawn and what will happen when two council members reside in the same district, but there is no doubt it will change the dynamic at city hall.

Currently, five out of six council members either live in the North End or East End, concentrating power in the liberal, high-priced neighborhood just adjacent to downtown. No matter how the districts are drawn, it will likely award at least one seat to a more conservative candidate who resides in the right-leaning, western edge of the city.

Council President Pro Tem Holli Woodings, City Council Member Lisa Sanchez and Council Member TJ Thomson’s seats are up for grabs. Thomson announced earlier this month he would not seek reelection after three terms in office and Sanchez has already signaled she plans to run again, but Woodings has not made any plans public.

If both Sanchez and Woodings both run, it is unknown if they would have to run against each other because the lines have not yet been drawn for the districts. Sanchez lives in the North End and Woodings lives in the East End, which are close enough to potentially be districted together.

The districts will also mean candidates run different campaigns than before. Instead of having to focus on knocking doors and wooing voters in high turnout areas of the city, like the North End, they will have to appeal to only the voters in their geographic area. Voters will only select one council member, instead of three like in the past.

What about capital projects?

Before the pandemic, Boise had a laundry list of projects it was looking to complete. The city’s ability to pay for these improvements, both necessities and dream projects, depends on how well the economy recovers from the pandemic, changes made to the property tax formula at the state level and the ability of the city to reopen services once the pandemic subsides.

The Boise Public Library System is set to begin master planning for the next phase of the library in the spring of 2021 after years of users and librarians saying expansion is necessary. The majority of Boiseans voted in November 2019 they wanted a vote on a new main library project and the library will now be trying to put together a proposal they can use to win over voters. Will it involve a new main library less flashy than what Bieter had designed by world-famous architect Moshe Safdie? Or will residents want more branches? Something else?

Public works will also play a major role in 2021. As part of the city’s water renewal utility plan council approved this fall, Boise is looking to build water recycling into the system to prepare for coming water scarcity and climate change. They are also looking at a rapidly aging system and a growing region with more water renewal needs than before.

Boise’s Public Works Director Steve Burgos floated the idea of the city using a bond to pay for needed upgrades in mid-2020. Council Members seemed generally receptive to the idea because it would save taxpayers money in the longrun, but there was no concrete decision or a detailed proposal for what the ask would be. How to pay for the upgrades to the system, and what those exact upgrades will be, will return to Boise City Council in 2021.

And finally, Boise is still in the grips of a housing crisis residents are demanding a solution for. The city launched its housing land trust this year with the development of several hundred units of affordable housing at the intersection of Franklin Road and Orchard Street and there are more projects on the way. This includes plans for an incentive for affordable housing developers and the possibility for a housing bonus to boost density in exchange for some lower-priced units.

With the budget pressures from the pandemic and a growing cry to reduce the burden of property taxes from homeowners, Boise elected officials and staff have their work cut out for them in finding solutions in the next year and those to come.

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev senior reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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