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Boise taxpayers will front cash to pay for potential legal fight over Harris Ranch taxing district

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The City of Boise is fronting the money for the Harris Ranch Community Infrastructure District’s legal fees in the face of a possible lawsuit from disgruntled residents.

On Tuesday, Boise City Council unanimously approved a new reimbursement agreement with the district allowing the City of Boise to pay up to $250,000 in legal fees on behalf of the district for the next three years. The district, which helps fund infrastructure and other neighborhood amenities in the Harris Ranch neighborhood with a special extra tax on roughly 600 homes, will have 14 years to pay the city back with interest.

The vote comes after a decision from the board earlier this month to hire two attorneys from Givens Pursley to present the city after residents of the CID organized the Harris Ranch CID Taxpayers’ Association in recent months. The group objects to the constitutionality of the district itself, the extra taxes, and a range of projects the developer is asking to be compensated for. The group has not filed a lawsuit yet, but has threatened to bring litigation several times in recent months. 

“The District was created in part to help implement the City’s vision for the Barber Valley neighborhood via the City Council approved Harris Ranch Specific Plan (“SP-01”),” the memo in the city council packet said. “In order for the District to complete its mission as a funding vehicle for community infrastructure within the District, we recommend that Council approve this reimbursement agreement.”

[Proposed project would add homes to Boise foothills next to popular trail]

Changes to the city’s standing agreement

Boise City Council Members voted for the agreement change on the consent agenda without comment. Although the Harris Ranch CID is a separate entity, City Council President Elaine Clegg and City Council Members Holli Woodings and TJ Thomson sit on the board of the district.

This is an alteration of the city’s annual agreement with the district that allows for a special levy on district property owners that raises money to reimburse the city for the cost of administrative staff to support the Harris Ranch CID. It brings in an annual revenue of $16,000, which a memo accompanying the decision called “insufficient” to cover the legal costs of the lawsuit.

The memo also said this levy cannot be rapidly raised to immediately cover the legal costs due to restrictions on tax increases passed in the property tax reform bill passed earlier this year.

Residents raise questions about bond election

Boundary of the Harris Ranch CID. Via City of Boise

The taxpayers’ association has been flooding the Harris Ranch CID Board with letters of complaints through the summer on a variety of topics.

On Monday, the association sent in its latest letter, this time questioning the validity of the election held in 2010 to issue $50 million in general obligation bonds for various projects. Three “Yes” votes were counted in the election at the time because the property was undeveloped and owned entirely by business entities owned by Harris Family, not individuals. 

The taxpayers’ association argues in its letter this makes the election to issue the bonds invalid because the votes did not come from individual property owners, but from business organizations. The third vote came from an individual named Ronald Murray who lived in a mobile home on the Harris Family’s property, which the taxpayers’ association alleges might not have been properly registered to vote in the election.

“But even if Mr. Murray were a qualified elector, had not been impermissibly influenced in his vote, and was the only qualified voter in the election, it would mean that $50 million of bonds, and perhaps $100 million or more in special taxes, were all approved by the “vote” of a single individual who did not own any property in the HRCID and thus would not have paid ANY of the untold tens of millions in special taxes over perhaps as many as 50 years,” the association wrote in its letter to the Harris Ranch CID board. “That can’t be right.”

Hethe Clark, attorney for developer Doug Fowler, wrote a letter to the Harris Ranch CID board sharply disagreeing with the tax association’s allegations about the bond election. He noted that the election was held over a decade ago and cited statute he argues allows business entities who owned property in a potential CID to be able to vote in the election.

He also strongly disagreed with the questions the taxpayers’ association raised about whether or not Murray’s vote was legitimate. Clark said Murray was a well-known ranch hand on the Harris property and that Bill Doyle, the member of the taxpayers’ association who penned the letter about the bond election, was “reckless” in raising questions about the legitimacy of Murray’s vote.

“…We caution the HRCIDTA to be far more circumspect before continuing to make baseless
allegations regarding the developer, Mr. Murray, and the Harris family’s actions and character,” Clark wrote. “It is not acceptable to invent facts and claims that impugn the character and integrity of individuals and businesses in the community in order to further the HRCIDTA’s agenda.”

How much notice is enough?

Some residents of the CID have also alleged they were not adequately notified of the extra tax burden they were signing up for upon the purchase of their property.

At a public hearing at the end of July, several members of the group testified their objection to a road project the developer was requesting reimbursement for, as well as the lack of adequate notice for the CID and the extra taxes that come with it upon purchase of their homes. This week Clark wrote a lengthy letter rebutting the claim that there wasn’t enough notice for homeowners.

“There are no flashing neon signs at the entry of a taxing district and it would be impracticable to rely on individuals to provide information about properties they own (or might have owned in the past),” Clark wrote. “Instead, the long-standing solution is to create a single repository for this information, administered by local governments – in this case, the Ada County Recorder’s Office. This is also why an entire industry of title companies has grown up to provide such reports and inform owners of the responsibilities associated with their property.”

In the letter, he went on to list a number of documents that disclose the CID to prospective homebuyers. Clark also included an excerpt from an email sent to Larry Crowley, one of the organizers of the taxpayers’ association, from his builder disclosing that the property was in the CID.

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. 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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