City leaders read with great interest the editorial opinion from the Idaho House of Representatives leadership challenging cities to use one-time government aid to reduce city budgets in the upcoming year. Apparently, our leadership team in the House of Representatives doesn’t know that city budgets were approved at the end of last month, after several months of deliberation, which culminated with a public hearing. The experts in city budgeting are your locally elected, locally accountable city councils and mayors.
The Legislature decided to limit the ability of growth to pay for itself by passing HB 389. That has forced Idaho’s citizens, businesses and communities to bear a greater burden in paying for local services and infrastructure like roads, police, fire, libraries and EMS. While turning a paved road back into gravel may be cheaper, it is not a sound nor forward thinking strategy in the year 2021.
Idaho’s city leaders know investments made today are the best way to guarantee a better future. Mayors and city councilors across the state have a long and proud history of serving as good stewards of the tax dollars used to carry out the blueprint their citizens elected them to build. The recent federal funds made available to Idaho communities will see a continuation of that theme.
Each city and its needs are unique and, in a state as diverse as ours, city leaders will be evaluating the needs of their individual communities and listening to their constituents as to how to best use these funds to re-invest in our communities. Local voters are well aware of the areas needing investment — roads that need repaved, aging water and sewer lines that need to be replaced and ensuring our cities can hire police and firefighters to help people in their time of need.
The Idaho we see today is a result of the investments made decades ago. In the 1960s and 1970s, the federal government made significant investments in community infrastructure, providing funds that helped many cities install or upgrade their water and sewer systems. These projects are expensive, and the federal funds helped ensure that the cost burdens to communities were reduced and sustainable.
After decades of very limited federal investment, the aging infrastructure in our communities has become a major challenge and the federal government has stepped up to provide more resources to help cities fund water, sewer and broadband projects. Without the federal investment, utility ratepayers would be looking at massive increases in their water and sewer bills every month. Dedicating these federal funds to the needs with the highest long-term return on investment will ensure that taxpayers get the most bang for their buck.
Spending these one-time funds on operating expenses forces water and sewer ratepayers to pay for expensive needed upgrades on their own, which does not make sense. Using these funds for infrastructure ensures that Idaho’s communities and economy get the best return on investment.
The recent actions of the Legislature are not only putting those at risk, but they are also jeopardizing the ability to invest in Idaho’s future. That is not the fiscal stewardship that made Idaho great. Nor is the recommendation by some leaders in the Legislature to tie funding for ongoing expenses such as police and fire, to this one-time federal money. City leaders on the front lines of handling Idaho’s population boom know better and will use these funds to make prudent decisions and not only reinvest where necessary but make wise one-time investments in our future.
It can often take a city many years to save up the funds to spend on a large-scale project, let alone maintain existing infrastructure. One growing Idaho city has a $200 million dollar road maintenance backlog; another small city has been saving for many years to make the expensive upgrades needed to its drinking water infrastructure, so its citizens have safe water to drink, while multiple cities have understaffed police departments.
Idaho’s local leaders do not have the luxury to avoid facing today’s problems. Solving the issues of the day is not always easy, but is what the job demands. In this spirit, city leaders will use the one-time federal funds judiciously to make the best investment for our cities today and tomorrow.
— John G. Evans is the mayor of Garden City and the legislative chair of the Association of Idaho Cities.