Originally published Dec. 20,2021
Legislators will once again gather under the Capitol dome for the 2022 legislative session, and Boise has a lot on its wish list.
Last month, the City of Boise’s Director of Government Affairs, Kathy Griesmyer, highlighted several items Idaho’s largest city will be watching carefully. This includes high hopes for the state to fund its Affordable Housing Trust Fund for the first time, investments in transportation, and any changes to the state’s complex property tax system.
Housing, housing, housing
Additional funds and support to address the ongoing affordable housing crisis are top of mind for Mayor Lauren McLean’s administration.
Griesmyer told the city council Governor Brad Little has been meeting with stakeholders about how to address housing issues throughout the summer. She said right now, there is the possibility of the state putting between $40 and $50 million in the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which was created and never funded in the 1990s. This would allow cities to apply for funds to develop affordable housing projects, which they could match with their own contribution in some form.
She said although the City of Boise might have the cash to put up for a local match to get access to these state funds, Griesmyer said she is hoping legislators will allow more flexibility in matches to accommodate smaller cities hoping to complete projects. This could include matches like a land donation or waiving hook-up fees for affordable projects.
“It would be a really key initiative for it to be funded so we can address some of the gap financing needs affordable housing developers are often facing when they are trying to bring new developments up to speed and to also ensure the math pencils out for them in terms of what market rate is asking versus what affordable housing prices should be appropriately priced at,” Griesmyer told the council.
Keeping renters in the affordable housing they already might have is another hope for the City of Boise. Griesmyer said the city will continue to support any legislation protecting tenants from “lack of due process or inappropriate evictions.”
Buses, trains and automobiles
More funding means more Idahoans getting places.
Griesmyer said the combination of Idaho’s record budget surplus and the new investments from the federal government will create new opportunities to fund transportation projects in the Gem State. This could look like capital to build more public transit lines, bike and pedestrian connectivity, or highway projects. The city also continues to work with partners in other neighboring states to try and revive passenger rail in the region.
Idaho’s lack of a funding mechanism for public transit has bogged Boise down for decades. Under former Mayor Dave Bieter, Boise spent years trying to convince the legislature to approve local option taxing authority so Boise could ask its citizens if they would like to impose extra sales taxes to help fund a system, but those efforts went nowhere.
City Council Member Holli Woodings said that although the new infrastructure funding from the federal government could provide one-time funds to build capital projects, it still leaves the city without sustained funding to help pay for a robust system. She said the city should start working with legislators to find a different way to make this service sustainable.
“In the past, it has been pigeonholed into ‘we need local option tax,’ but opening that conversation up to ‘We need an Idaho way of funding public transportation” has been a little bit more resonant, I’ve found,” she said.
More property tax talks?
The question of how to address rapidly rising property tax bills vexed the Idaho Legislature for years.
In the final days of the 2021 marathon session, legislators passed HB 389 and enacted sweeping changes to Idaho’s property tax system in the hopes of reducing property tax burden. This included a cap on how much local governments could increase their budgets, personal property tax breaks, an increase to the circuit breaker for low-income seniors, and a tweak to the property tax formula.
Proponents of the bill said this would help reduce spending at the local government level and keep bills from rapidly rising. But, the City of Boise and other localities statewide argued this would only kneecap local governments’ ability to pay for growth with limited property tax relief. Griesmyer said now that Idaho has a year under its belt with this new legislation, more changes could return to the statehouse floor.
“There are some continuing conversations around what are the actual impacts of that bill now that cities have gone through a budgeting period and looked at what revenues will look like and how that is impacting growth or just the ability to expand and respond to community services and needs that local governments provide for,” she said.
The property tax interim committee met throughout the summer and at one point considered changes to the assessment system to try and address the ongoing shift in property tax burden from residential to commercial property, but the interim committee was unable to meet one last time to make official recommendations before the legislative session.
More possible restrictions on local government spending
Griesmyer said another fiscal item floating around is a possible piece of legislation that would limit how much money local governments can hold in their reserves to pay for capital projects. City Council President Elaine Clegg said the Idaho Association of Cities is concerned about the possibility of these restrictions.
“The Idaho Association of Cities at their recent meeting had a lot of conversations about all of these topics, but especially about reserve funds and how not unlike HB 389 if they are to impose some sort of draconian limit on how much you can have in reserve funds it can prevent a city like Melba from saving money to buy a new fire truck because they go over the limit pretty quickly,” Clegg said. “The Association of Cities is collecting those stories to help legislators understand that they should allow cities to manage their own money.”