Hard Choices: As Boise's To-Do List Grows, So Does Tax Burden Gap 

"We're probably looking at a 61 percent tax burden for residential in 2014, versus 39 percent for commercial."

Even the most seasoned public servant knows that budget-setting is a lot like enforcing mealtime rules to a 6-year-old: You can't simply skip to dessert (all the goodies that tax dollars can buy). You have to eat your vegetables first (the sometimes-bitter reality of collecting those dollars from citizens). And to the person, the members of the Boise City Council, Mayor Dave Bieter and much of their City Hall staff, don't like the inequity of Boise's tax burden.

"This model--and it's a state model that we have to use--isn't working," said Bieter's chief of staff, Jade Riley, pointing to numbers that would make a veteran number cruncher choke.

"This model is very flawed," Riley said.

Simply put, the chart (above right) tracks the "tax burden" in Boise same--and while homeowners and business owners used to share an equal amount of the heavy-lifting about a decade ago, the gap grew during the housing bubble when the region was experiencing double-digit residential growth.

The tax burden gap shrunk when the recession took hold from 2007-2011; "But things are going back up," warned Brent Davis, the city's budget manager, as each of the Council members' brows furrowed.

"We're probably looking at a 61 percent tax burden for residential in 2014, versus 39 percent for commercial," he said.

Council Pro Tem David Eberle said the old adage that businesses don't use the same services as homeowners simply doesn't wash--certainly not to the point of a 60/40 split.

"It's a false argument that businesses don't use the same services," said Eberle. "Of course businesses require a strong work force that require the same services."

As for how much citizens can expect to pay in taxes for Fiscal Year 2015, here's the real head-spinner: your tax rate will go down but your actual, out-of-pocket taxes will go up.

"We're estimating that the overall tax rate, both residential and commercial, should go down about 8.4 percent," said Brent. "But here's the weird part. The actual tax impact is expected to go up an average of 4.4 percent."

Making matters a bit worse for homeowners, their taxes will be higher--probably much higher--than businesses because of the inequitable tax burden (again, see the above chart).

"It's because there's more overall property value," said Brent. "The taxes are caluclated over the assessed property value, and those valuations are up about 14 percent."

But while city officials continue to grumble about the burden, they're still faced with the task of crafting a budget that is a post-recession reflection of Boise. And right now, all roads lead to a proposed $487 million spending plan for fiscal year 2015, which begins Oct. 1. The budget includes $295 million for maintenance and operations, $156 million for personnel and $38 million for equipment.

A better way to represent who gets what, however, is to break down how each tax dollar would be distributed (see graph on Page 8) if the FY 2015 budget passes muster: police--29.5 cents; fire--24.9 cents; intergovernmental--11.5 cents; parks--9.9 cents; library--6.2 cents; contractual services--5.4 cents; public works--2.9 cents; legal--2.8 cents; planning and development--2.7 cents; mayor's office--1.3 cents. Information technology, human resources, arts and history, finance and administration, and the City Council office all get less than 1 cent.

The proposed budget accounts for a little more than 1,620 full-time equivalent jobs in city positions, the majority being in police (396.4 FTEs), fire (284.2), public works (231.9) and parks (151.6).

Healthy Child Care, Sustainability and More Transit

But Bieter's eyes lit up with optimism about one hour into a June 24 budget workshop.

"This is the first time I've seen all of these proposals bundled together," he said. "Boy, I sure like the way these look."

And indeed, things took a positive turn once the Mayor and Council had slogged through the tax numbers. Over the course of the next several hours, a vast array of projects and programs were laid out, offering a glimpse of where Bieter and the Council would like to take the city in the new few years--some of them expected, but many of them big surprises.

For example, Boiseans may have heard something about the so-called Healthy Child Care Initiative, a program championed by Councilman T.J. Thomson, designed to promote and enforce new guidelines and requirements to promote healthy habits for children. The program--requiring approximately $133,000 in year one and followed by about $81,000 in its second year--will see the hiring of a healthy initiative trainer who will work with daycare providers throughout Boise. The training, which will include CPR and First-Aid, will give providers more tools to better care for the city's children, including more opportunities for daily physical activity, nutritional standards and private locations where mothers can nurse their children.

Much has been talked about, and even debated about, the city's commitment to sustainability (BW, News, "A Sustainable Boise," May 29, 2013); and while a list of 11 sustainably themed projects were pitched to lawmakers earlier this year, only a handful made the final cut. Of the $426,000 proposed, $175,000 of that figure is attached to one stormwater demonstration project. And while there have been few details thus far on the stormwater demonstration, city leaders did mention that it could be tied to St. Luke's Health Systems' new master plan for its downtown Boise campus.

Other, smaller sustainability proposals include $76,000 to track energy, waste and water reductions in city facilities, and $125,000 for public outreach and education.

The city was also asked to help fund major enhancements for Valley Regional Transit, particularly enhancing service to Harris Ranch, Fairview Avenue and State Street. Beginning later this summer, VRT has indicated that it wants to add peak-hour service to Harris Ranch and expand its 9X route, aka State Street Express. But its biggest change could add service to Fairview, increasing all-day service to facilitate connections to Towne Square Mall, Capital High School and the Library at Ustick and Cole. The Fairview implementation alone has a hefty price tag--$392,056--but officials said there was a possibility that federal grants could help subsidize some of the funding.

More Downtown Housing

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the June 24 session came in something not seen before, at least publicly, it's called "Downtown Housing Incentives," and it's exactly what it sounds like. The city's Planning and Development Services, helmed by director Derrick O'Neil, is proposing to incentivize the creation of at least 1,000 "new and diverse" multi-family housing units to downtown within five years.

The proposal says there are estimates that Boise's downtown population will "more than triple during the next 20 years, but that growth is contingent upon the city growing denser within its downtown core." The fact remains that Boise's ratio of jobs to housing in downtown is 11-1, according to the city. That's the lowest in the Pacific Northwest, according to the Urban Land Institute.

As a direct response, PDS has proposed two incentives--each subsidizing developers to bring in new downtown housing. One plan, which would pay up to $1,000 per unit, would go to developers who bring in at least 10 units that are sustainable (green certification), are in optimal locations (biking and walking is encouraged) and/or reuse or revitalize existing buildings. Another plan, which would pay up to $2,000 per unit, would go to developers who bring in at least nine units that meet all of the above criteria, plus are more "affordable for low and medium income individuals or families."

The money would come from economic development funding (railroad rental income), Council strategic planning funding and federal subsidized funding sources.

For examples, PDS pointed to already-successful incentive programs for affordable downtown housing in Houston and San Antonio, Texas; Regina, Calif.; and Tulsa, Okla.

Library!

And to give the City Council something even bigger to chew on, Boise Library Director Kevin Booe sat before lawmakers late in the session to give them a taste of things to come.

Boise Weekly readers know all too well about the library's desire to find 21st century solutions to a 20th century main library that has been "loved" a little too much by its ever-increasing users (BW, Citydesk, "Five Possible Options," May 7, 2014).

And Booe shared with Bieter and Council some of the fresh-off-the-presses conceptual designs that they may want to consider sooner than later. Working with Boise-based Trout Architects, Architectural Nexus will be stepping before the library's board of trustees later this month with several options, including a first-floor re-do that would introduce an additional new entrance at Eighth and River streets, a new cafe, makerspace, a new shop for Friends of the Library and an entirely new sense of place for the main floor.

Other phases include a remodel of the main library's children's section and possible reduction of the library's catalogue. But the real "ah-ha" moment came when Booe told the City Council about a so-called "high-density shelving system."

Try to picture a multi-story, glass-enclosed robot system that files and retrieves many of the library's books. In fact, Booe said it was not out of the picture to expect children to clamor to come to the main library "just to see the robot." Council members agreed and said they were anxious to skip to that phase sooner than later.

But first things first--the Council, library trustees and even Booe don't know yet how much such a dramatic change would cost.

In the meantime, the Council will be sharpening its pencils for a Tuesday, July 15, public hearing to examine proposed fees for the coming fiscal year, an Aug. 12 public hearing on the overall spending plan, and (after three full readings of the budget) an Aug. 26 vote to adopt the financial blueprint.

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