Tax dollars collected from property owners living within the boundaries of the Caldwell East Urban Renewal Area went to subsidize YMCA memberships for government and Simplot employees, but not for the taxpayers themselves. Over a two year period, the CEURA granted $150,000 to the Caldwell YMCA’s wellness program; that money was then used to subsidize 25 percent of the cost of memberships for employees of participating government agencies and the Simplot company.
Good for the Y, but what about the taxpayer?
Caldwell YMCA Executive Director Scott Curtis says in the wellness program’s first year, 2008, employees of Canyon County, and the Vallivue and Caldwell School Districts were invited to participate. Under the program, the employee paid half of the cost of a membership, the employer paid 25 percent, and the CEURA funds were used to cover the remainder of the membership cost. In 2009, the program was extended to Simplot employees in Caldwell and Nampa. Curtis says now that the CEURA contributions have ended, Simplot has picked up the slack and is now covering 50 percent of its employees’ memberships.
Curtis says the program was a rousing success, thanks in part to the CEURA subsidies. “The whole goal of the Urban Renewal Agency is to help businesses locally be successful, and grow commerce, as well as make it a great place for people to work and live. And also to help the Y be successful. That $75,000 that they put in (2009), in grant funding alone, brought in $238,000…for the Y.”
Public funds for a private purpose
The Idaho Freedom Foundation asked CEURA Chairman ElJay Waite if participation in the wellness program was offered to those whose tax dollars helped fund it. “We participated with the YMCA, and let them administer it, and it’s a partnership with businesses, not individuals. Anyone who was an employee of Canyon County, or the two school districts the first year, because we chose the government partners first, realizing that would have a good impact on taxpayers, and those folks who wanted to reduce costs, and then once we did that the first year, we had some private corporations come in and participate. So, we left it up to the YMCA to promote it, it was on their dime, and then we paid based on those who participated, and luckily they were able to get full participation for the commitment we made to them each year.”
Waite went on to say the program helped reduce workman’s compensation claims among the employees who participated. Perhaps, but in regard to at least one agency, that claim was not accurate. The IFF obtained the workman’s comp records from Canyon County for the years 2007-09, the year before the wellness program subsidy began, and the two years of the subsidy. According to those public records, workman’s comp claims were higher in 2008 and 2009 than they were in 2007, in terms of both the number of claims and the total cost of those claims. We also requested the workman’s comp records from the Vallivue and Caldwell School Districts, but at the time of this writing, had yet to receive them.
Why were taxpayers excluded from the wellness program?
We asked Scott Curtis why the taxpaying public wasn’t invited to participate in the taxpayer-funded subsidy. He said they wanted businesses to see that healthier employees could save them money.
“It was seen as a short-term program. Part of the program was for us to have some focus groups, that we could show change, and the businesses recognize the value to the business, so they could then pick up the subsidy, which is what has happened with Simplot. But if you do that with every individual, then you just bring them in, but after their short-term subsidy, they are the ones who have to pick up the subsidy.”
So is that to say that a private taxpaying citizen wouldn’t renew their Y membership after the short-term subsidy expired?
“No, I couldn’t say that.” said Curtis.
The Idaho Freedom Foundation tried to contact the Caldwell City Attorney for answers to a couple of questions:
• From which statute did the CEURA derive the authority to grant public dollars to a YMCA program in which the general public was not invited to participate, and
• Is it legal to exclude the public from a program which is publically funded?
Not being able to find any listing or link to the City Attorney on the City of Caldwell website, the IFF contacted the City Clerk’s office. We were told that we needed to send the questions to the clerk in the form of a public information request, which would then be forwarded to the City Attorney. Despite this not being the intent of the state’s Public Records law, we complied.
Shortly afterward, the IFF received a reply from attorney Mark Hilty, who said he represents both the City of Caldwell and the Caldwell East Urban Renewal Agency. In it we were told, “To the extent you are requesting, or may request, existing ‘public records’ which contain analysis of the legal issues set forth in your email that might have been prepared by any attorney representing Caldwell and/or the URA including my firm, such records are exempt from disclosure pursuant to Idaho Code 9-340A, IRE 502, and Idaho Code 9-203.”
In other words, we weren’t going to get an answer.
Public purpose doctrine
The Idaho Constitution requires that public funds only be expended for public purposes. This so-called “public purpose” doctrine is not explicitly stated in the constitution, but the Idaho Supreme Court has inferred it from a number of constitutional provisions, including Art. 8, sec. 2. While this section of the constitution is expressly directed at prohibiting the state from loaning “credit” to any “individual, association, municipality or corporation,” the Idaho Supreme Court has held that this section also impliedly prohibits the state from engaging in or funding activities that “do not have primarily a public, rather than a private purpose."
So does this mean the YMCA’s wellness program, made available to employees of selected businesses and government agencies, cannot receive publically funded subsidies from the CEURA? Apparently, that question has yet to be answered.