CALDWELL — Canyon County has asked voters four times since 2006 for an increase in property taxes to fund a new county jail. On Thursday, the Board of Canyon County Commissioners asked Idaho legislators, “What else can we do?”
Commissioners Tom Dale and Pam White met with legislators on Thursday to ask about a local sales tax to help fund a new jail. Idaho legislators have been historically opposed to local option sales tax, a voter-approved tax that would allow cities or counties to impose an extra sales tax to fund a specific project.
To allow citizens to vote on a local option sales tax, a bill would have to pass through both chambers of the state legislature and then the county would put the question on the ballot. The increase would need a super majority, two thirds, to pass.
After a brief introduction during the meeting, White asked the group of legislators — Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell; Rep. Gary Collins, R-Nampa; Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa; Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa; Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, and Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton — to raise their hands if they approved of a local option sales tax. No one raised their hands.
“People throughout the state are saying, ‘We do not want to pay for jails through our property tax’ and this option is to have authority to ask our voters to see if we can get a local option sales tax,” Dale said.
Collins, chairman of the Revenue and Taxation Committee, said his concern is the local sales tax would negatively impact businesses, meaning people would go to neighboring Ada county to shop instead of Canyon County.
“I don’t think local option sales tax is a good option,” Collins told commissioners. “It will make the retailers not competitive. In my committee and my own feelings, I don’t see anything moving forward in local sales tax option.”
In the last legislative session, several local officials all came out in support of the local option taxing authority; the legislature did not take up a bill on it.
Following Collins’ comments, Dale asked the legislators to explain how else the county could find funding.
“It is just going to ask voters what they want,” Dale said. “What it comes down to is that we need other options. People do not want to pay for a jail through property tax.”
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue stood up in the audience near the end of the meeting and said that everyday 700 people are released from jail on pretrial release, most of whom, he said, should not be.
“Criminality is going to continue regardless of how big the county is and the country is growing a lot more,” Donahue said. “Today we are talking about Canyon County, but we are not the only county in this situation.”
He asked the legislators, “Who do you think criminalizes the businesses? The 700 people a day who should be in jail who are not. These people are out there every single day and they are victimizing your families, they are victimizing society, they are victimizing businesses.”
Donahue said the people out on pretrial release are a bigger threat to local businesses than an increase in sales tax.
“We trying to give some relief and to hold people accountable,” Donahue said. “But without a new jail we are not, and 700 people a day are sitting outside on pretrial release.”
Donahue concluded his statement with asking legislators to hold a public hearing to see what communities have to say about local option sales tax.
The meeting concluded without any action. Collins said a group of legislators have put together a group that hopes to explore options for local funding when it comes to big projects, like the Canyon County jail. He said the group is likely to meet later this month.
The meeting between legislators and commissioners is part of a series of meetings over the last few months to explore options for funding a jail, since asking property tax to the entire project is likely out of the question after four tries.
From those meetings, commissioners have explored an option to lease a jail facility from private investors, but the county would need to have funds secured to pay around $12 million per year. There is not enough funding in place for that option. They have also briefly discussed impact fees to help fund the jail, but are not sure of the legality of that option yet. Impact fees bring in revenue from developers when new projects are built, and help fund capital projects for streets, police, parks and fire departments.