BOISE — Six candidates hoping to take the helm of Boise’s local government made their case on the Bench Thursday night.
All but one of the candidates in the crowded field spoke to a large crowd at the Hillcrest Library about a range of topics including homelessness, affordable housing, transportation and the possibility of F-35s coming to the City of Trees. Candidates included incumbent Mayor Dave Bieter, Cortney Nielsen, City Council President Lauren McLean, Ada County Highway District Commission President Rebecca Arnold, Adriel Martinez and former Boise Mayor Brent Coles. Wayne Richey was unable to attend.
One of the most prominent splits in the group centered around fiscal priorities. Coles and Arnold hammered current elected officials over rising property taxes, and the pursuit of large projects like the proposed main library, instead of keeping the budget tight. Coles said if the city were to be more fiscally responsible, it could have a better chance at negotiating with the Legislature for local option taxing authority to help fund public transit.
“If we’re building a $100 million library in downtown Boise and the legislature comes into town and they see something like that or hear about projects like that, they turn a deaf ear to us,” Coles said. “We have to tighten our belt and show that we’re using our dollars very appropriately and not outlandishly, then we go up to the legislature, we work with them, but it takes years to develop those kinds of relationships.”
On the other hand, Bieter and McLean defended current city initiatives to construct more housing in the city, in an effort to keep up with the influx of new residents. Bieter brought up the need to develop denser housing close to transit, instead of allowing suburban sprawl to extend the city’s services farther away from existing infrastructure.
“Sprawl is the enemy of cities, but the only thing people hate worse than sprawl is density,” Bieter said with a laugh. “Density is what we need to go forward. We’ve begun to see a different developmental pattern that is more compact and more mixed use and more multifamily. Not everyone wants to live in a single-family detached house. We need to make those available as well, but I’m really proud of how we’ve gone about it.”
Arnold followed his comments with criticism on Boise’s density policy. She alleged the city has been pressuring developers behind closed doors to make projects even more dense than originally planned, and has not taken neighborhoods into account in their push to build more housing units wherever possible.
“I think the city has been routinely upzoning things because they’ve never met a high density project they didn’t like…” she said.
Another major split in the field is on the possibility of the F-35s arriving in Boise. Bieter, Coles and Martinez were in support of the U.S. Air Force moving the notoriously loud aircraft to Gowen Field. McLean, Arnold and Nielsen were opposed.
Those in support argued the F-35s is an essential piece of supporting the military stationed in Boise. Opponents expressed concerns about noise levels, and how that would affect the housing market. A recent environmental impact study released by the U.S. Air Force said the planes being stationed in Boise would make over 200 homes uninhabitable and impact at least one elementary school on the Bench. McLean said once she heard the findings of the study, she could not support it.
“There are incredible things happening at Gowen Field, and I support the mission and will work with them to expand, but I believe it’s not necessary to have F-35s as part of that in our future,” she said.
Boise’s proposed main library project loomed large in the discussion. Arnold referred to the budgeted $85 million project as the “Taj Mahal library.” Coles said it was out of the city’s price range, and Martinez said it looked “nothing like Boise.”
Bieter and McLean said they would not be supporting the twin ballot initiatives asking residents if they would like to vote on the library and a public-private partnership to build a sports park. Bieter took it a step further and called the initiatives unconstitutional. He has previously said if it was passed, he would take legal action to have them overturned by the courts.
Coles questioned Bieter’s opposition to the group that gathered the signatures, and his financial support of a political action committee dedicated to discouraging voters from signing the petition.
“Why would the city fund a lawsuit against something the people had written with the cooperation with the city attorney?” Coles said. “While you were out trying to stop us from acquiring the signatures for our initiative … you were funding suppression.”
Homelessness was also a point of contention. McLean has been a critic of the city’s move to take its legal fight over an anti-camping ordinance to the U.S. Supreme Court. She said the city should instead embrace alternative methods for diverting people to services, instead of using fear of large homeless camps to power a lawsuit.
“Too often we use the fear of camps to say that we need to take punitive action,” she said.
Bieter defended the lawsuit and the anti-camping ordinance. Martinez and Coles said they would prefer those funds paying for the legal battle be spent on homelessness services. Arnold said the city should be doing more to address underlying causes of homelessness, like mental health and addiction.
Nielsen spoke broadly about her personal experience with homelessness.
“Homelessness is a choice and it’s because of mental health, addiction and abuse,” she said. “There is not one answer for homelessness. There’s so many advocates wanting to help the homeless, they are everywhere and people always want to help the homeless, but the reason they are out there is because of a choice. I can speak from experience.”