During the annual Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce Leadership Conference in Sun Valley, the mayors of four Treasure Valley cities talked about the challenges they faced – and how the region can better collaborate to help tackle problems related to growth.
Lauren McLean of Boise, Robert Simison of Meridian, Trevor Chadwick of Star, and Debbie Kling of Nampa talked about some of the issues they face in their respective cities. Each echoed many of the same things: transportation, public safety, property taxes, and housing.
“Our communities In Idaho are growing rapidly, especially in the Treasure Valley,” McLean said. “With that growth comes challenges and opportunities. In Boise, our citizens see the challenges in the community we love deeply but the opportunities that come with growth.”
Housing the big priority
McLean talked extensively about the continued challenges around housing.
“Housing is not just a Boise issue but a regional issue,” she said. “I’m so appreciative of the governor and the state legislature for their work in this most recent session.”
Both McLean and Simison said employers and major businesses are increasingly telling them that housing affordability impacts their ability to retain and attract employers.
“We hear from employers that housing is a problem – and they need more, and they need it to be affordable at Boise budgets,” McLean said.
“We see Tamarack and Brundage providing housing for employees,” Simison said of recent efforts in the resort communities around McCall. “We’re having conversations with our employers about ‘do we need to start doing that as well?'”
Chadwick said his community is seeing a new type of development – what he called “horizontal apartments.”
“We have a developer that is building 300 homes. But instead of selling them, they are marketing them as rentals. And they rent for $2,500 to $3,000 per month. And I can’t figure out who can afford those – especially since they want income to verify three times the rent.”
Kling said a key challenge is the right of private landowners that comes in conflict with people who don’t want to see new homes next to their existing homes.
“You’ve got neighbors saying – not in my backyard,” she said. “But you have developers who have bought land with the intent to develop. It’s a massive investment. You can’t just pull the plug (and stop development). The impact you’d have on title companies and realtors is massive.”
She pointed to specific master plans in both Boise and Meridian and said it’s something Nampa is now studying.
“We want to make sure it is nice growth when you grow. I like what I’ve seen you do,” she said, gesturing to McLean.
Simison said those types of plans, and setting guidelines on where to grow and not, are a big key.
“We can’t grow everywhere all the time,” he said. “There are some places we can’t grow. It puts a strain on the infrastructure throughout the region and what resources we do have. We’ve had that conversation with our development community about where we want to grow and where we don’t. I’ve had some difficult conversations telling developers, ‘we don’t want to grow there.’ We’ve had to say, ‘that’s not our plan, that’s not our priority.'”
Another big topic – as you can imagine – is how to connect communities and get people around inside them.
For Nampa, Kling noted that the most recent decade – 2010-2020, was not the fastest period of growth.
“Our greatest growth was between 1990 & 2000 and 2000 & 2010. It wasn’t the largest growth that was the problem – it’s the accumulated growth and the lack of funding. When you look at infrastructure – it’s the accumulation that’s the greatest challenge.”
“Traffic is a huge concern for us,” Chadwick said. “Anybody who traverses through Star between 3:30 pm and 6:30 pm – it’s a nightmare. We’ve got many projects going with… (ACHD and Canyon Highway District 4) that (are) going to do great things for us.”
Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg also spoke up about transit – and the long considered but never acted on plans to add regional rail connections.
“We’ve talked around having regional collaboration and a regional plan for 25 years,” Clegg said. “And we’ve never come to any conclusion about what that means.”
She said that without regional planning and collaboration, there’s another outcome, in her mind:
“We are facing growth and facing change. We are going to continue to. Does that mean we fill the entire valley up with rooftops? Because that’s where we’re headed if we don’t have some conversations about where we want growth to go.”
McLean said the City of Boise is engaged in conversation with the City of Mountain Home and the Mountain Home Air Force Base as the valley starts to move toward that major employment center.
Developer Mike Adler, who owns Adler Industrial, said the development community looks for consistency — planning — and coloration.
“If cities can get together and compare their plans and make sure they are being set up properly along transportation corridors – and have higher density along transit corridors, it makes the overall region a lot better,” Adler said.
Cities around the state – particularly in the Boise metro area, have complained early and often about a series of moves in the Idaho state legislature that has changed how cities can collect or increase property taxes.
“When we talk about state and city partnerships – we need to be honest,” Chadwick said. “I think we need to have more collaboration between the cities and the legislature to help them understand the cities. They clearly don’t understand what happens in the cities. I’d love to get with them and talk with them, so we don’t get into the fights over property taxes.”
“Our cities can’t rapidly increase property taxes,” McLean said. “We are constrained to three percent (increase) plus 90% of (the rate of) growth. And 90% of a police officer doesn’t do any good – we have to fund the full officer.”
McLean expressed empathy for other cities in Idaho. Boise, as the largest city, has the largest budget.
“It’s becoming harder for cities around the state than it is even for us in Boise,” she said. “So goes the region, so goes the state, so goes our city because we are in this together. The reality is (this has impacts) on what it means in terms of our ability to fund public safety and other services our residents expect.”
Some efforts have looked to ease property tax burden by changing how sales tax is collected and distributed.
“It’s been a little hard with the state,” Kling said. “I don’t know that there’s the understanding of the criticality of the infrastructure we have to provide. Sales tax revenue is critical to us – but it’s volatile – it goes up and down. It makes it really difficult. “
Simison said he just wanted to get the rules set – and stick to them.
“If every year we are going through this process of modifying and changing how we are funded…” Simison’s voice trailed off, expressing apparent frustration. “Let’s set the rules and move on. We’re spending 25% of our time trying to respond to what other elected officials are trying to do. Wouldn’t it be better if we could spend our time on what we were elected to do? Let’s clearly define expectations and leave it alone for ten years.”
“If you’re honest and open, you can find solutions. We have to stop dancing around things,” Chadwick said.
Kling’s call to solutions
Earlier in the day, Gov. Brad Little’s Deputy Chief of Staff Bobbi-Jo Meuleman told the group that now is the time to get together, even if it feels “corny” sometimes.
“Now is a good opportunity to take your local perspective and make some things happen,” she said. “Working together can be extremely rewarding. Sometimes it blows up and doesn’t work. But when you work together toward a common goal and are successful, it feels good. The Treasure Valley – mayors, commissioners, you do work really well together. “
During the mayor’s panel, each of the members, who are elected on a non-partisan basis, but three of whom identify as Republicans and one as a Democrat, sounded similar notes.
“I like to collaborate, and I will talk to anyone. It doesn’t matter what side of the fence you are on,” Chadwick said. “We have so many challenges, and I think they are all fixable if we do it with a level head.”
Kling said she would address the “elephant in the room,” and spoke about a speech by mega-church pastor Andy Staley to the Georgia House of Representatives earlier this year. Staley told the politicians they were being “terrible leaders” and that they were being driven by division. He said they should follow the example of Jesus Christ and embrace the “messy middle,” according to the Christian Post.
Kling relayed a part of Staley’s message to the Sun Valley crowd. And while she said she wasn’t attacking any individual legislator – a few of whom were in the room, she urged cooperation and resisting urges to be pulled toward the fringes.
“The messy middle is where the problems are solved,” Kling said, echoing Staley. “He encouraged the Georiga legislators to walk toward the messy middle. For us and what we are facing. We have got to stop. We’ve been so into attacking each other that we are not getting the work done. We are facing how polarized we are. For us to get anything done – we have to step into the messy middle and figure it out. And not be divided by Republican or Democrat or far left or far right.”
She ended with a simple statement.
“We have to get the work done because our people deserve it.”
Simison said silos need to be broken down. Inside cities, across cities, and across the state.
“Let’s all get out of our silos and find those areas we can engage,” he said.
McLean, a Democrat, agreed with Kling, a Republican.
“I think Debbie said it so well,” she said. “I am optimistic. We have had so many challenges in the past two years, and we did OK. We have so many challenges today that are really opportunities. When we come together with a clear vision to turn them into opportunities — these mayors are up to the challenge.”