A Fruitland resident and mother is speaking out against her city for using taxpayer cash last year to fund a marketing campaign to persuade voters to approve a bond measure.
Rachel Lindsey, a stay-at-home mother to five kids, isn’t thrilled that her city used more than $6,500 in taxpayer funds to sway voters to support a $6.5 million bond plan that would have paid for the construction of a new city hall.
“As a citizen of Fruitland, I found it extremely frustrating to receive two mailers and one hand-delivered door hanger, all taxpayer-funded, and all shedding what I felt was a positive light on our proposed $6.5 million bond,” Lindsey told IdahoReporter.com. “ It planted distrust in me for my local leaders.”
Fruitland City Clerk Rich Watkins confirmed last week that the city used taxpayer money to print two sets of mailers and a set of door hangers and to purchase postage. Watkins revealed, in total Fruitland spent $4,883 to produce and print the mailers, and another $1,627.77 for postage. (Click here to see the city's promotional materials.)
The city council approved the expenses at its July 11, 2016, meeting.
Off-duty city employees, including firefighters, cops and paramedics, spread the door hangers throughout the western Idaho town that boasts about 5,000 residents.
Fruitland also hired Bilbao & Co., a Boise-based public relations and government affairs firm, founded by Ysabel Bilbao, to aid the city’s outreach effort. The Independent Enterprise, Fruitland’s local newspaper, reported in July that the city agreed to spend $2,000 a month to retain the firm.
Watkins said Fruitland paid Bilbao & Co. $11,431, which covered four months of work, plus posters and other materials for three open houses held before the election.
City officials paid for the public relations push using revenue-sharing funds provided by the state. Fruitland received just more than $53,000 in revenue sharing for the third quarter of 2016, and $48,669 for the final quarter.
Revenue sharing dollars come from taxpayers through Idaho’s 6 percent sales tax, which the state collects.
The bond would have allowed Fruitland to convert the town’s old, vacant high school into a city hall and police station, as well as renovate the current city hall to serve the fire department and paramedic teams.
Fruitland Mayor Ken Bishop took to the town newspaper to persuade citizens to vote support the request.
“This investment will give us the room we need to grow for the next fifty years,” Bishop wrote in his Nov. 2, 2016, plea. “By converting FHS and remodeling the existing city hall, we get the best bang for our buck.”
Despite the electioneering onslaught, the measure failed at the polls. Some 882 Fruitland residents voted in favor of the bond request, with 830 opposed. Because Idaho law requires support from two-thirds of voters to pass a bond, the measure failed.
After the failure, city officials told the local newspaper they plan to “return to the drawing board” to cut costs for the bond plan before presenting it to voters a second time.
Lindsey is less than thrilled that the city used taxpayer funds to underwrite the political effort.
“It didn’t seem right that they had the liberty to spend taxpayer money on not one, but three mailers they felt were necessary to ‘educate’ citizens about a bond they were hoping to pass,” the Fruitland mom said. “I feel that was wasted money which should’ve, and could’ve, been put to much better use.”
The Fruitland story comes as members of the Idaho Legislature examine a bill to block local units of government from using tax dollars to influence elections. Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, introduced legislation last week that would do just that, and the bill has Lindsey’s seal of approval.
“Those who collect and spend the money should not be allowed to promote their own agenda; even if they claim it’s only purpose is to ‘educate’ the citizens,” she added.
Monks’ bill awaits further hearings in the House State Affairs Committee.