URA debate moves to midtown proposal

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COEUR d’ALENE — Lawmakers remain torn on what, if any, changes should be made to improve oversight on urban renewal boards that lure major companies to Idaho.

The 10-member Urban Renewal Interim Committee met Monday to go over possible solutions, but held off from taking any action until November's meeting. The panel will submit its recommendation to the 2016 Idaho Legislature.

Urban renewal agencies collect taxes from improvements in their municipal districts and use that money to attract and finance new projects, particularly in blighted areas. Idaho has about 70 agencies in more than 20 counties.

The districts have become go-to solutions for municipalities to boost economic development as local officials have limited options for easy financing. However, critics have argued that agencies operate under low accountability guidelines and take tax dollars away from local government on projects that would have happened anyway.

On Monday, the committee agenda listed the 17 people who offered testimony; seven of them were from Coeur d’Alene.

Coeur d’Alene resident Brent Regan submitted comments to the committee saying he believes the agencies need to be updated in several areas.

“The mission of the URDs needs clarity. What was formerly the elimination of ‘blight’ has now become a generic ‘economic development,’” Regan said in his testimony.

He also believes urban renewal is taxation without representation, be cause the board is appointed rather that elected.

Others testified that they supported urban renewal the way it is. Former Coeur d’Alene Mayor Sandi Bloem said she testified over the phone on Monday.

“I told them how valuable I think urban renewal is for the state,” she said. “Urban renewal must remain flexible so it can act when something has to happen now to attract a large employer.”

She said it is invaluable tool when trying to recruit business to the area.

Bloem said urban renewal gets criticized for its role in creating public places like the Library, Kroc Center and McEuen Park, but those provide indirect benefits that could be argued are just as important for economic development purposes.

“You can talk to Jobs Plus or some of the companies that moved here and they will tell you how important those are,” she said, adding those community amenities all factor into an employer's decision on where to relocate.

David Lyons, of Coeur d’Alene, spoke on behalf of the Midtown Matters group which opposes a workforce housing project that is working with ignite cda, which is Coeur d’Alene’s urban renewal agency.

Lyons is concerned about the agency’s spending on lobbyists and advertising campaigns. He told the lawmakers that he believes the spending to be an illegal use of taxes.

“In Coeur d’Alene, urban renewal has been a big issue in local elections the past several years,” he said. “This year, (ignite cda) is spending nearly $85,000 of taxpayer money for an advertising campaign that is really just disguised political advocacy intended to influence local voters’ attitudes about urban renewal and (ignite cda).”

He said ignite cda has plans to give the Redevelopment Association of Idaho $10,000 for membership, an organization that is clearly influencing legislation designed to weaken urban renewal laws in Idaho.

Lyons said the money is in addition to the $22,000 plus expenses the agency spends on a personal lobbyist.

“Under the Idaho Constitution, public bodies such as URAs are prohibited from spending taxpayer dollars on anything that is not a public purpose,” he said. “The Idaho Supreme Court has defined public purpose as something that serves to benefit the community as a whole.”

Another key point of contention is how agency members are selected. Idaho law allows city officials to appoint board members rather than having them run for election. State Sen. Mary Souza, a Republican from Coeur d'Alene, said agency board members should be elected because they manage tax dollars. It doesn't make sense, she said, that school board and highway district members have to run for office, but urban renewal agencies are given a special pass.

The North Idaho lawmaker has been critical of her own local urban renewal agency's efforts, questioning its marketing methods and project selection.

"We would be leaving it up to the community to decide," she said, advocating for urban renewal elections. "I think that's the local control we need."

But in south-central Idaho, the Twin Falls urban renewal district has been hailed for attracting big name companies like Greek-yogurt producer Chobani and Clif Bar to build facilities — in turn creating hundreds of jobs — in the area.

Republican Rep. Lance Clow of Twin Falls said he favors selection by appointment because it ensures that experts will be part of the decision making rather than someone who will promise not to raise taxes, which is a common campaign refrain for Idaho candidates.

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