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Eye On Boise

Lawmakers look at banning use of urban renewal funds for most public buildings

The draft legislation under review by the Legislature’s urban renewal interim committee today includes a proposal to ban the use of urban renewal funds for projects that cost more than $1 million where the urban renewal funds would make up 51 percent or more of the total project costs, and the project is “construction of a city hall, library or municipal administrative office building used primarily as an office building that will not be subject to property taxation.”

The committee hasn’t gotten to that section yet in its line-by-line review of the draft, but several concerns already have been raised about it. Sen. Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise, suggested that “rather than looking toward restricting public facilities,” the lawmakers consider that “a community could decide on their own … if they wish to restrict public facilities in urban renewal, if they wish to go out for an advisory vote, as Ada County did with its courthouse.” She suggested “that those opportunities would be defined ... rather than just restrictions.”

Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, said he favors restrictions, if an urban renewal project would essentially complete “an end-run around those types of building projects, and that traditionally, jailhouses, courthouses, things like that that have always had to pass a bond, and would live or die on the outcome of that vote. I don’t feel good about urban renewal taking over that obligation.”

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said, “This is the same point I think we’ve had discussions on the whole time we’ve been going through this: The fear that urban renewal for public buildings, public facilities, are getting around the constitutional requirement for bonding and debt. I think that’s something that we need to be really careful about in this wording, is to make sure we aren’t allowing that type of option to local government to do things we think they shouldn’t be doing.” He added, “I do have a concern about the public facilities.”

Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, responded, “I share your concern. ... That’s been a big concern, that use of urban renewal is to bypass the voters.” She added, “In addition to the public buildings, this goes a little further into other types of property that they own. At last count I think we had 27 pieces of property that urban renewal has purchased, some of them are on contract, that they let out for diff businesses and occupancy as family homes as well, competing with the private market. So I think something needs to be looked at, as to the length of time that they would compete in the private market and the numbers of properties that they can own at one time. I would like to see some thought on how long they can hold properties and what markets they can operate in as other businesses do.”

The draft the panel is reviewing also includes new sections requiring more reporting from urban renewal agencies and imposing penalties for failure to report; and granting court costs and attorney fees to people who sue because they've suffered damages from urban renewal, in addition to cash damages for physical, emotional or economic damage caused by "wilful" actions. The draft legislation also authorizes class-action lawsuits against urban renewal agencies.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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