State of the City

Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper addresses the City Council and audience members during the State of the City address on Jan. 10.

Two people who testified at the public hearing on Idaho Falls’ 2019-2020 budget urged the Council not to raise taxes so much, while four others asked the Council to support the Idaho Falls Animal Shelter.

The animal shelter has been working aggressively over the past few years to reduce the number of cats it euthanizes. Some people talked about the success of the shelter’s trap, neuter and release program for feral cats and asked the Council to fund a special projects coordinator position to help run the program.

“We need the special projects coordinator, that comes from (or) evolves from the TNR (trap, neuter, release) program,” said Krista Stafford. “Without that person to run the TNR program and to do all the stuff that is needed to make the TNR program a success, we can’t do it. There (are) not enough city employees to do that without that particular employee to do that.”

Stafford said the job would cost about $45,000 a year. Not filling it, she said, would threaten the shelter’s progress toward becoming no-kill for cats.

“I think for Idaho Falls to be no-kill status right now, you all being Idaho Falls citizens, council members, people in general should be flabbergasted and proud of yourselves for that, and if we take a step backward and become a … kill shelter again, that’s just sad for Idaho Falls and it will look terribly on our city,” she said.

Mayor Rebecca Casper said Friday she doesn’t know whether the Council will decide to fund the position.

“I don’t know what the Council will end up deciding,” she said. “There is a concern that we shouldn’t be continuing to add full-time employees to the roster, that we have to be very careful and … scrutinize every hire.”

The City Council adopted its tentative budget for next year in late July. The maximum proposed property tax levy is $36.26 million, compared to $33.94 million this year. The general fund, which is the part of the budget that is largely supported by property taxes and includes departments such as police, fire and parks, would increase from $46.4 million to $51 million.

The maximum overall budget amount, which includes numerous other funds that help pay for things such as utilities, roads and ambulance service, is $238,805,558, a $32.2 million increase over this year. The biggest increases are in the budgets for Idaho Falls Regional Airport, which includes $12 million for a terminal expansion that will mostly be funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, and Idaho Falls Power, which is asking for extra funding for a mix of projects. Idaho Falls Power, most of whose funding comes from customers paying their power bills, represents the biggest single chunk of the city’s budget at a proposed $88.1 million for 2019-2020, an increase over this year’s $75.5 million.

At this point, the Council can reduce the total budget and tax amount from these levels before passing a final budget but cannot add to it. Lisa Keller, a Bonneville County resident who owns rental properties in Idaho Falls, said the city has been raising property taxes by the statutory cap of 3 percent plus growth and new construction for the past few years. (Last year’s tax hike was higher, since the city also took $925,000 in “foregone balance” to cover some new items for the police and fire departments.)

“The cost of living increase in my paycheck hasn’t been 3 percent, nor in my husband’s, nor in my renters’,” Keller said.

Keller told the stories of some of her tenants — an artist and part-time handyman who moved back home from Seattle to escape the high cost of living there; a man on a fixed income; a police officer; a single mother — and talked about how they might be affected if she has to raise their rents.

“Her (the single mother) and her children may have to leave their house because I can’t afford to pay my bills without having to raise (rent) on these poor people,” Keller said.

Tye Tomchak agreed and urged the Council to find ways to save money. Tomchak said he lives on a fixed income and will have to pull money out of his savings and retirement to pay his property taxes.

“My assessment went up this year 24 percent,” he said. “You’re going to get more money without raising it 3 percent, you guys. We’re one of the highest taxed cities in the state.”

The Council plans to hold a work session on Monday afternoon, and if necessary also on Tuesday, to discuss the budget and possibly make changes. The Council is expected to pass a final budget on Aug. 22.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.