BOISE — For the second week in a row, Boise’s city council candidates gathered for a forum in a packed room of voters to make their case of why they should be one of the city’s new representatives.
All but one of the city council candidates made an appearance at Wednesday’s forum, sponsored by the Boise Metro Chamber and the Idaho Statesman. The discussion included familiar topics like affordable housing, public transportation and the city’s contentious main library project.
This year’s most hotly contested place on the dais is Seat 1, vacated by City Council President Lauren McLean when she opted to challenge Mayor Dave Bieter. Five of the six candidates appeared at the forum, including Patrick Bageant, Karen Danley, Chris Moeness, Ryan Peck and Brittney Scigliano.
One major split among the candidates was their position on a possible partnership between the city and a developer to build a sports park in west downtown. All of the candidates acknowledged that the lack of a concrete proposal for the public to consider made it difficult to stake out a solid position on the issue, but only Bageant seemed tentatively in support of the idea, saying it could be a good deal.
All of the other candidates seemed skeptical about the proposed downtown location because of the lack of late-night transit service, and instead suggested somewhere else on the outskirts of the city where people could more easily drive to from around the region.
Candidates were generally supportive of the city’s efforts to address the housing crisis, but Danley was critical of Boise’s density-focused efforts. The city’s Grow Our Housing program focuses on increasing housing supply and encouraging denser, more walkable development. Danley, who lives in semi-rural northwest Bosie, said density is important, but it only belongs in the downtown core.
“I do support affordable housing, however I don’t think packing us all in like sardines and upzoning everything is the answer,” she said. “Supply and demand are not the only two factors here.”
Moeness, a real estate agent, said he thinks the city should invest more funds in its homeownership program, which offers another layer of support for low-income Boiseans through a second home loan. He said this program is more sustainable for the city because it receives payments back that can help more residents, instead of just building rental units.
“That’s smart because we’re not just spending money and never getting it back,” he said. “I really would focus on expanding that program, but would hope to not use any additional taxes and try to look for ways to cut the budget to expand that program.”
Bageant referenced an affordable housing land trust, but that’s not up and running yet. Bieter last year pitched a plan for a $20 million land trust made up of public and private funds, and a feasibility study is underway.
All of the candidates said they were supportive of libraries in general, but acknowledged the need to change course on the now paused-$85 million downtown library project. The project became so unpopular that a group of citizens put a ballot initiative forward to ask residents if they would like to vote on the project later, which candidates said was a symptom of the city not being upfront about the costs or keeping residents informed.
“I think there was a real breakdown in communication along the way,” Scigliano said. “...I understand it’s been in the works for a long time, but somewhere along the lines the communication stopped. I would have done things a little differently, I would have kept those lines of communication open and made sure people knew about it.”
Danley advocated for more branch libraries instead of an upgrade to the main library.
Longtime incumbent City Councilwoman Elaine Clegg is facing off with Brady Fuller and Debbie Lombard-Bloom for Seat 5.
Lombard-Bloom is one of the most fiscally conservative candidates in the city council race and said one of her top priorities is cutting property taxes. Fuller and Clegg said they want to prioritize affordable housing, public transportation and creating and maintaining open space.
“I think we need to look at (property taxes) pretty heavily and see how we can reduce that burden on the workforce,” Lombard-Bloom said.
All three candidates were in support of increasing public transportation across the valley. Clegg described herself as a “change agent” and touted her record as a longtime advocate for public transit funding, including her push to add an additional $2 million to the city’s funding of Valley Regional Transit over the last six years and change how Boise funds transit.
“This year I brought forward a resolution to change the way we budget for our transit system and do it as a percentage of our budget,” Clegg said. “I’ve since gotten three other communities interested in doing it this way: Meridian, Eagle and Ada County.”
On the library, all three candidates acknowledged that the city needed to reevaluate the project and seek more input. Clegg said the 5,000 residents who gave input on the building’s design in the years leading up to the unveiling of the proposal “was not enough” community engagement, but Lombard-Bloom and Fuller both outright said the project was not transparent in the first place and should have been done differently.
“When we’re talking about this amount of tax dollars, we have to make sure there’s community buy-in,” Fuller said. “That’s where we get the people to support these efforts for something like a library. Without that buy-in, it’s hard to fully support it.”
Only two candidates are facing off for City Councilman Scot Ludwig’s soon-to-be vacated seat: Jimmy Hallyburton and Meredith Stead.
The candidates disagreed with the city’s recent move to take its legal fight over ticketing people for sleeping on the street to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hallyburton said ticketing should be the “last resort.”
“We have organizations like CATCH that are working hard to provide housing first initiatives to get people who are chronically homeless into stable housing, and we’ve got organizations like Jesse Tree that are keeping families right on the edge from going over and into homelessness,” Hallyburton said. “We’ve got so many opportunities out there before we get to our last resort.”
On the other hand, Stead said Boise Police officers have close relationships with those experiencing homelessness and know how to respond compassionately, but officers still need the option to ticket if they have to.
“(Ticketing) is not their first option, and often it’s not even their third,” she said. “Our police officers are really well-trained to deal with the people in our city who are experiencing homelessness. Their first couple of options are what kinds of services can I connect you with, but I think it’s important to keep that tool in the toolbox.”
Both candidates said they support libraries, but had concerns about how the main library project ended up. Stead was especially concerned about the price for the project, which came in nearly $20 million over the $85 million budget.
“I couldn’t understand why we decided to move forward with a project that was above ($85 million), so I’m glad it’s on hold,” she said.
Hallyburton said something similar, and hoped for a future iteration of the main library project that would be popular citywide.
“This new library could have added so much value to our city, but now it’s dividing us,” he said. “What happened here? Now we have the opportunity to bring the community in to figure out how to do this better, and how we can do this better with other projects going forward.”