It’s interesting, if not somewhat puzzling, to watch our Idaho mayors become apoplectic when lawmakers and taxpayer advocates talk about changing the urban renewal law city governments love so much.
Urban renewal is one of the generation’s greatest taxpayer heists, but most people are completely unaware of it because it comes under the seemingly-benign label of “urban renewal.” That leads people to believe “urban renewal” is filled with wholesome goodness, the same way few of us question the veracity of dinner when it includes “vegetable medley.”
It contains vegetables and is packaged in something that sounds like music. What could possibly go wrong?
Urban renewal, to the uninitiated, is the program used in Idaho as well as other states in which taxpayer money is redirected to certain pet projects using the increase in property values within a district to pay for it. For years, it’s been a happening-good-time way for mayors to avoid asking taxpayers to approve otherwise unaffordable dream projects, such as the new law enforcement building going up in downtown Nampa, the Idaho Center in Nampa, the Treasure Valley Community College building in Caldwell, a big water amusement center in Rexburg and park renovations in Coeur d’Alene.
In many cases “urban renewal” projects aren’t “urban” at all. Indeed, urban renewal works best when it takes in farmland, because urban renewal districts reap huge financial rewards for turning rows of crops into office space and retail centers. In such cases, urban renewal districts alone collect taxes from the increased valuation. The other districts collect property taxes as though the land remained undeveloped, forcing those districts to drive up levies in order to accommodate a greater demand for services.
The joke’s on taxpayers, however, who have to foot the bill for projects they never approved.
The fixes to this problem have several Idaho mayors in an uproar which I, frankly, don’t get. The series of bills pending in the Idaho House of Representatives merely call for an election to create urban renewal districts, clearly delineated projects, a required a vote before urban renewal districts enter into long-term debt, a vote of urban renewal board members and require more transparency by urban renewal districts. To me, these aren’t attacks on cities, but rather putting these government entities on the same level as any other government entity that plays with taxpayer money.
Frankly, urban renewal districts shouldn’t exist at all, and even the elected officials in California are beginning to understand what a boondoggle those urban renewal districts have become. Jerry Brown, the state’s new governor, is calling for the complete dissolution of so-called redevelopment agencies to help solve his state’s overspending problem.
Certainly California’s problem is not Idaho’s. However, there is a correlation: While some Idaho cities contend the economy has made it so they don’t have enough money to hire the police or firefighters they need, those same cities are busy siphoning taxpayer money to urban renewal districts in order to fund the arts, city government buildings and downtown beautification projects.
If urban renewal projects are as great as we’re told they are, mayors throughout Idaho should be enthusiastically behind the fixes now being contemplated by the Legislature. At least Meridian’s mayor is behind one of the changes. But the fact that many mayors are not makes one suspicious that perhaps urban renewal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.