When it comes to mandates from the federal government, Idaho lawmakers staunchly vouch for local control.
Yet, that attitude seems to fade when lawmakers feel it’s their turn to tell cities and counties what to do.
A bill by Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, for example, would freeze local property tax collections for a year. At a time when cities and counties in the Treasure Valley are scrambling to keep up with growth, why not let them benefit from the additional revenue coming in from all of these new houses and commercial buildings? Why put a roadblock in the way of growth paying for growth?
We appreciate Moyle looking out for homeowners burdened by rising property taxes — especially those older residents on fixed incomes who don’t plan to sell their house and therefore won’t reap the gains of rising property values. We also feel for renters, who are paying for rising property taxes through their increased rents.
However, we disagree with Moyle’s approach — as do many mayors and county officials.
“It is a value of mine that growth pay for itself, because if it doesn’t, then existing residents will be hurt the most, and I’m concerned about that,” Boise Mayor Lauren McLean said.
Moyle said he hopes this law would pressure local governments to spend their money more wisely. Again, we appreciate the sentiment, but this blanket approach of freezing taxes will cause a lot more pain than good.
In a separate proposed bill, Moyle wants to limit local governments’ ability to tax new construction. Currently cities and counties can increase their property tax collections by up to 3% each year, plus bring in revenue from taxes on new construction and annexations. Moyle’s bill would limit the tax increase to just the 3% maximum, with no additional growth from new construction.
Having that revenue stream from new construction doesn’t amplify the burden on existing residents — it helps relieve it. Moyle’s approach to cut off this revenue, and expect local governments to serve a growing population with fewer resources, makes no sense. Had that been in place last fiscal year, for example, the city of Boise would have missed out on $12.7 million from new construction an annexation property taxes.
Both of Moyle’s bills would let local governments override the cap or the freeze, but only if two-thirds of voters agree to do so.
Being more frugal isn’t always the answer. When you look at counties across the state, they’re already struggling to provide state-mandated services with the resources they have. Inmates are sleeping on the floors of county jails in Boise, Twin Falls and Pocatello because of lack of bed space, county officials told the Legislature’s Property Tax Working Group in November.
In Washington County, there’s no deputy on duty at night, county Commissioner Kirk Chandler said. A report of a robbery came in at 3 a.m. one night, he said. Who is going to respond?
In Clearwater County, there was only enough money to paint the fog lines on the roads, Sheriff Chris Goetz told the working group. “There are no center lines,” he said, “because there was no money to do that.”
Doesn’t seem like a matter of rampant waste to us.
The Legislature is also handcuffing local governments by refusing to pass a local-option sales tax law. If you want cities and counties to back off of property taxes, give them another resource to fund needed improvements. This option gives voters a say on whether or not to pass a sales tax bump for a specific project. The Legislature needs to open the door and give communities this local control.
Speaking of local control, now lawmakers want to tell cities how to run their elections. Under a bill brought by Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, any city over 100,000 people would need to elect council members by district. That would affect Boise and Meridian right away, and potentially Nampa.
As it is, cities can choose to hold elections by district or citywide. Boise, Meridian and Nampa hold elections at-large; candidates run for a specific seat, but they choose which seat to run for and represent the entire city when elected.
Boise is past due in switching to district elections, but the decision should come from the city. The switch would ensure more balanced representation on council. An Idaho Press analysis last May found that five out of six of the council members at that time lived in the East and North ends of Boise, more affluent neighborhoods.
But we fear that forcing Meridian and Nampa to make the switch to district elections would result in weak candidate pools for voters in certain districts. As is, sometimes only one or two people run for an open seat.
This change would require a ton of legwork to draw the districts and ensure no gerrymandering takes place. The cities, which would have to carry out this work, should be the ones to decide whether to make the switch.
The state telling cities how to proceed with their elections is a “heavy hand of government,” House Majority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said.
Usually Idaho’s Legislature is firmly against that usurping of local control — or maybe that’s only when its own control is threatened.