AT LEAST HALF A DOZEN BILLS ARE CURRENTLY BEFORE THE IDAHO LEGISLATURE AIMED AT CUTTING AUTHORITY OF URBAN RENEWAL AGENCIES AND CREATING CITIZEN OVERSIGHT OF ACTIVITIES. NEWSPAPERS THROUGHOUT THE STATE (NOTE IN BOISE HOWEVER) HAVE REPORTED ON THE ISSUE. MOST HAVE LEANED TOWARD THE VIEW OF LOCAL POLITICOS, BUT WITHOUT FACTUAL DETAILS ABOUT WHAT HAS PROMPTED THE CALLS FOR REFORM.
Because Urban Renewal Agencies operate as an “Independent Body Corporate and Politic,” all districts in Idaho have no oversight of any voters, taxpayers, or elected officials at any level.
Once a district is created by a city or county (usually a city) it can spend as it pleases, go into debt at its own discretion and condemn property at will. They report to no one.
Recently the Idaho Attorney General investigated allegations against the Caldwell urban renewal agency. Complainants claimed officials were given memberships in the private YMCA– including a family membership for the mayor worth more than $800–from urban renewal funds. The agency provides more than $1 million a year to the YMCA, but holds no ownership, and they also provide subsidies for memberships to Simplot employees and county workers among others to the tune of $150,000.
The Attorney General said while it didn’t look good and may not be appropriate, the agencies have broad authority to spend and ruled there was no violation of Idaho law.
In Boise the urban renewal agency abruptly cut payment of dues to the exclusive Arid Club for its director when it was revealed in the Boise GUARDIAN blog. The appointed board had approved the expense for years.
While the intent of urban renewal is noble, it has evolved into a gigantic slush fund that reports to no one. Taxes on the APPRECIATED VALUE and all IMPROVEMENTS are diverted from the schools, cities, counties, and all other districts such as libraries and fire protection. That is called the INCREMENT. The result is property taxpayers have to make up the difference.
Rather than create new development that pays taxes, many cities are using URA to “launder” public works projects such as city halls, police stations, and libraries through URA. The reason? Idaho’s constitution requires voter approval for those projects, but if the URA builds it and finances the debt with bond sales, there is no voter approval. The cities “rent” from the URA for 24 years, but contrary to the intent of UR, there is never any tax revenue on the government owned public buildings.
The conservative group pushing for reform has gotten the ear of the legislature, triggering consternation among local politicians and many media pundits. For the most part, the bills seek voter approval to create a district, approve public debt, or allow affected districts like schools to “opt out” prior to formation of a URA district.
The concept of urban renewal isn’t bad, but when officials claim the light of public scrutiny would cripple their activities, perhaps those activities should be curtailed.
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