By Lindsay Atkinson | SMART Boise project leader
One of the unique aspects of the constitutional, representative democracy that the United States has been experimenting with over the last couple hundred years is the breadth of methods to make public policy. We the people have the opportunity to propose a new law. In Idaho, the rawest form of this right is a resident-lead initiative. And Boise residents are immersed in the opportunity to vote on not one, but two, resident-led initiatives right now.
On November 5, residents will vote on if they want a future, binding vote on the fate of publicly-funded library and stadium projects. This is being dubbed a “vote for a vote.” But the first and second “vote” in this “vote for a vote” are pretty distinct.
The first vote, set for November 5, is simply a matter of accountability. No matter your perspective on the actual library and stadium projects, the purpose of this first vote is to ensure that residents get a future, binding vote on any proposed library project that uses $25 million of public money or a stadium that uses $5 million. This does not just include a vote on the currently proposed main library and stadium projects: It could trigger a vote on a project 5, 10, or 20 years down the road, that uses millions of dollars of taxpayer funds, such as a proposed branch library.
Plus, the second purpose of this first vote is to ensure that residents are given certain information, such as “the cost, financing method, location, design, and size of the proposed” library or stadium facilities, before taxpayer money can be used on them.
The second vote in the “vote for a vote” would then be your perspective on the actual project: A YES for approval or a NO for disapproval. It would be a binding vote, and thus a stronger type of vote than any special election proposed by the city council, which would only be advisory in nature. This second vote could occur as early as 2020 for the library project, and potentially at that same time, or later, for the stadium project.
In September 2019, the city of Boise released a voter pamphlet to give both supporters and opponents of this “vote for a vote” a chance to explain their perspective to residents. There are several inaccuracies in the pamphlet due to the timing of the document’s publication. For instance, the city council has not called for any special election on these projects, unlike what the voter pamphlet states. The November 5 election will just be the “vote for a vote” resulting from resident-lead initiatives.
There are also elements to some of the arguments contained within the voter pamphlet that are misleading. For instance, a part of the published argument specifically against Proposition 1, which is the “vote for a vote” on the library project, assumes that, since the cost for the library project only represents a small percentage of the city’s budget, it is not a good practice to have city residents vote on the use of that money. Specifically, the Boise Public Library Foundation (BPLF) wrote in its argument:
“[W]hile Proposition 1 targets the Library Project, it also sets a bad precedent, requiring citizens to vote on an expenditure which is only 3.3% of the City’s current annual budget.”
But whoever came up with this 3.3 percent figure seems to not fully understand the city’s budget, nor the real cost of library projects.
The writer of the foundation’s argument got to this number by dividing the city’s fiscal year 2020 budget of $764 million by the $25 million threshold of public money devoted to a library project that would trigger a vote, based on the wording of the proposition.
$764 million ➗ $25 million = 3.3 percent
Though $764 million is the city’s budget for 2020, the city never really receives or spends that much money. Each year, as a part of the city budgeting process, a certain amount of money is designated as a contingent appropriation. This is money that cannot be accurately projected.
Contingent appropriations are, in a sense, cushion money. Some of it is money that was budgeted in a previous year, designated towards a specific project that has not been completed yet, so the funds have been rolled over into the new budget year. Some of it is just theoretical money: Money the city could get in the fiscal year, but it is not guaranteed. This could be grants the city has applied for, or it could be for donations that have been verbally committed, but have not yet been received.
Boise’s 2020 contingent appropriation is $250 million. Deduct this $250 million cushion and the projected budget the city has in 2020 could be as low as $514 million.
Now, consider the cost of the library. Yes, the proposition does state $25 million as the threshold for the cost of a proposed library project which would trigger a vote of the residents. But rarely has a contemporary library project cost $25 million or less.
Take the current proposal for a new main library, for example. The city spent nearly a year asserting that the project would cost $85 million. Now we know that is not true because, even cutting out some parts of the project and working with cheaper materials, the city has admitted the project will overrun the $85 million proposed budget. So let’s go with the cost estimate from the Idaho Press instead, and call it a $104 million project.
Let’s put these new numbers together: A city budget potentially as low as $514 million and a library project with a cost potentially as high as $104 million.
$514 million ➗ $104 million = 20 percent
So the November 5 vote is not as inconsequential as opponents of public input make it seem: Boise voters will actually be participating in a “vote for a vote” on a library project representing somewhere between 3 percent and 20 percent of the city’s budget. It just depends on the amount of the budgeted cushion that the city ends up actually collecting and the total cost of the library.
But the basic takeaway of this entire math equation is that the “vote for a vote” was proposed by residents who want the city to provide more detailed information to voters about proposed big-budget projects. They are fed up with the lack of clarity on how millions of their dollars are being used. Overwhelmingly, the types of projects that will trigger a vote if this “vote for a vote” passes will be projects worth tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, and not the small potato projects that opponents of public input want you to believe.
Read our report “Are you kidding me, Boise?” to see just how much of your money has already been spent on the proposed new main library project. Click here to download that report for free!