His name isn't even on the ballot. But anyone who doesn't think the legacy of Boise Mayor Dave Bieter won't be tested Tuesday, Nov. 5, when his constituents decide whether to support what he calls "livability" and public safety initiatives, they're simply not paying attention. In fact, it was Bieter who threw down the gauntlet this past June, triggering one of the biggest and most sophisticated municipal elections in the city's history.
Speaking before a packed house at the Boise Centre June 12, Bieter used his 2013 State of the City address to test his political capital by taking aim at a Republican-controlled Idaho Statehouse, launching his boldest public comments to date:
"We're on our own. We have to build our own economy," he said, prompting nearly 1,000 attendees to look up from their $45-a-plate breakfasts.
Bieter then talked about creating a new revenue stream to purchase more of the Boise Foothills to keep creeping development at bay, as well as fund fire and police department improvements and to upgrade a number of city parks for what he called "an underserved West Boise."
"The long-term viability of the city is at risk," said Bieter.
Within 90 days, the Boise City Council decided to pare away some of the items from hizzoner's wish list, such as upgrades for the Boise Police Department, and ultimately settled on two separate bond proposals to put before voters: Bond No. 1, totaling approximately $17.2 million, would set aside $6.8 million for construction of a new fire training facility and another $10.1 million to upgrade or replace four aging fire stations; Bond No. 2, approximately $15.7 million, would earmark $10 million for Foothills protection, in addition to preservation of some open space along the Boise River and other natural areas, and $5.5 million to fund three new city parks while adding new amenities to three existing parks. Adding in issuance costs, the bonds would total $32.9 million. Taking 20 years to pay them off would inflate the total to more than $50 million.
But you won't see any reference to $50 million—or even $32.9 million—on any of the glossy "vote yes" mailers that have been filling Boiseans' mailboxes for the past month. What you will see is the following phrase: "All for the cost of just $1 a month to the average Boise homeowner."
City officials estimate that based on the average assessment of a Boise home—$184,000—a household should expect to pay an extra $12 a year in property taxes if both bonds pass. A business with $1 million in taxable property value could expect to pay an extra $132 per year if the bonds pass.
But passage is an uphill battle; two-thirds of the voting public needs to say yes for either measure to become reality.
Reading the Tea Leaves
Anyone looking to forecast just how Boise voters might lean Tuesday, Nov. 5, might want to drill into the results of two previous municipal elections: in November 2011 and March 2012.
In November 2011, Bieter sailed to a rare third-term landslide victory, defeating challenger David Hall by a nearly 3-to-1 margin, solidifying his popularity with an enviable 74 percent of the vote. But only 16 percent of registered voters in Boise bothered to show up at the polls in 2011--approximately 17,000 people.
Prognosticators might instead want to look at March 2012, when a grassroots campaign secured passage of a five-year, $70-million levy for the Boise Independent School District. The levy required a two-thirds majority for passage and a well-organized group of volunteers successfully lured nearly 30 percent of registered voters—approximately 28,000 people—to the polls. The tax increase sailed through with 71 percent of the vote.
Simply put, organizers of this year's pro-bond campaign would be well advised to manage a majority of the minority. Voter turnout is key and if a minimal number of voters participate in the election, the pro-bond campaign could use that to its advantage. As Boise Weekly was going to press, officials at the Ada County Board of Elections said only about 80 people per day were taking advantage of early voting.
BW conducted its own unscientific polling on the bond initiatives, talking to scores of registered voters on three occasions—two weekdays and one weekend—in Boise's downtown core:
• 75 percent of Boise registered voters that BW spoke to said they were not aware of the bond initiatives, adding that they probably would not be voting.
However, 100 percent of those who were aware of the bonds said they would definitely vote.
• Of those who indicated that they would be voting, 63 percent said they would vote "yes" for both bond initiatives, 27 percent said they were still undecided and 10 percent said they were against both measures. None said they would vote "yes" for one bond initiative and "no" for another.
• Some were apathetic—a 20-something woman told us, "I don't vote. I hate politics." Others were over-the-top energetic—a 60-something woman said, "It's pathetic how many people don't vote. It's our civic duty."
"All we have to do is get that two-thirds. We have a lot of work to do," said Hollis Brookover.
She should know. Brookover said she has barely sat still since she was recruited in September to serve as co-chair for the pro-bond campaign, dubbed "Yes! Yes! for Boise."
"Hollis is a force not to be ignored," said Brice Sloan, Brookover's campaign co-chair. "I was thrilled that they asked me to help."
The two co-chairs, who had never met before the campaign, aren't politicians by a long shot. Brookover is a third-generation Boisean, co-founder of the advocacy group Idaho Voices for Children and, along with her husband, owns Garden City-based Mariposa Labs, a personal care manufacturing facility. Sloan is a former firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service and current owner of Boise-based Sloan Security Group, installing high-tech security for customers such as ExxonMobil and the U.S. Department of Defense.
"I have never really been involved in anything like this. I'm usually busy keeping my head down, making my business a success," he said. "But I passionately believe in this campaign. These are real issues that will have real impact on people's lives."
The Yes! Yes! campaign has had great success in fundraising and boasts a who's-who donor list with deep pockets. Donors include ESI Construction ($15,000); Gardner Property Holdings ($15,000); Barber Valley Development ($10,000); Blue Cross of Idaho ($1,000); Primary Health ($2,500); Western Aircraft ($5,000); MWI Veterinary Supply ($5,000); Syringa Networks ($2,500); Thornton, Oliver, Keller ($1,000); and D.L. Evans Bank ($1,000).
Equally impressive are in-kind donations from the Conservation Voters for Idaho, Idaho Conservation League, The Land Trust of the Treasure Valley and The Nature Conservancy, which have provided office space and volunteers.
"And the conversations between our volunteers and voters have been simple and direct. Once you say it's 12 bucks a year, people get it," said Brookover. "Most people understand what they're going to get for that 12 bucks. Most people want parks for everybody. And they certainly want the right fire engine to get to where it needs to go."
There's No Plan B
If anyone in Boise has reason to be nervous about the Tuesday, Nov. 5, vote, it's Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan. But he doesn't show it.
"As the fire chief, I'm here to answer any direct questions about the department. But it's their [the campaign's] job to get the votes," said Doan. "That's why there's a campaign. It's really their job to win this election."
Doan knows the Boise Fire Department inside and out. A veteran of 22 years on the force, he has worked every shift at every fire station in the city. Today, he oversees a total of 17 stations and 300 employees—280 of them firefighters.
Doan painted a sobering picture of four of the city's fire stations—Nos. 4, 5, 8 and 9—that require voter approval for $16.9 million in upgrades. In fact, his dire description of the facilities would give most citizens pause.
"Station No. 4 [built in 1972] on Ustick Road needs to rebuild to accommodate the relocation of a ladder truck [BFD has three ladder trucks to cover the entire city]. We've determined that No. 4 is the perfect place to put that truck."
"Station No. 5 [built in 1951] on South 16th Street has no emergency generator, needs new heating and air conditioning, is seismically unsafe and has a poor electrical system. And that station gets more calls than any other station in the state."
"Station No. 8 [built in 1956] on Overland Road has all of the same problems as No. 5. And this one is misplaced. We need to relocate the station to improve our response coverage for the Central Bench and Boise State."
"Station No. 9 [built in 1975] on Sycamore has one dorm, one shower, one bathroom. It's really bad. It's not ADA compliant and we have a major gender equity issue. A female worker told me it was pretty disgusting. We have the same problem at some other stations, but this one is the worst of all."
"There isn't a Plan B," he said. "The city only has so much money, maybe $5 million, in the capital fund for all of Boise each year. I truly think everybody understands this need."
But the big ticket item for Doan would be a new fire training facility, with a price tag of $6.8 million.
"Our current training facility is almost useless," said Doan, referring to the 40-year-old tower on Shoreline Drive. "We really can't burn inside it; we can't even use the front door of the building and we can't use fire suppression foam because of its proximity to the Boise River."
Doan paused for a moment.
"Honestly, if this bond doesn't pass, I don't think I would see a new training facility in my career," he said. "But I feel fairly confident that it's going to pass."
Since 2001—when 59 percent of Boise voters approved the landmark $10 million Foothills Serial Levy—10,763 acres of open space has been preserved through acquisitions, donations, easements or land swaps. The market value, to date is approximately $37.4 million.
"But the serial levy fund is down to about $1.8 million," Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway told a gathering of the Idaho Environmental Forum. He outlined the proposal of Bond No. 2, which would replenish the fund with an extra $10 million. "And I can tell you that the city is talking to a number of landowners everyday about new acquisitions. We have three active discussions as we speak. Plus, we're also looking at purchases of land outside of the Foothills, near the Boise River and in Southwest Boise."
Holloway also detailed the other piece of Bond No. 2: a $5.5 million investment to fund three new city parks and spruce up three existing parks in West Boise and the Bench, which he said, "do not currently meet our standards."
In particular, the city wants to develop Franklin Park at Franklin Boulevard and Orchard Street (including a community garden, picnic shelter, playground and fitness trail), Pine Grove Park on West Shoup Avenue (including a dog park, basketball court, picnic shelters and playground), and Sterling Park on Mitchell Street (including a dog park, mini skate park, tennis court, basketball court and picnic shelter).
The plan also includes improvements to Borah Park on South Aurora Drive (a new dog park, basketball court and open play fields), Liberty Park on North Liberty Street (a new baseball field, basketball court and picnic shelter), and Milwaukee Park on North Milwaukee Street (a new basketball court, playground and picnic shelter).
"We just have to do a better job in providing equal park access to our kids," said Brookover.
Sloan said the Yes! Yes! Campaign had good reason for securing a two-thirds majority.
"I just think there's very little opposition to this effort," he said.
But the opposition is formidable nonetheless.
"Yes, that was me," said David Hall. "I ran against Dave Bieter in 2011."
Hall, who lost in Bieter's landslide re-election two years ago, told Boise Weekly that he doesn't dispute the city's need for public safety or parks. But he quickly added that the city should have done a better job in handling its previous revenue streams, and that's reason enough to say "no" and "no" to both bonds.
"I spoke to this exact issue when I ran against Dave Bieter. The money has been there before, but it was never allocated properly," said Hall. "Our city leaders aren't spending the money we're giving them on the type of projects that are required."
Hall said when city officials claim they need $16.9 million for public safety, he has no problem with the number.
"But to me, that $16.9 million represents a lot of neglect," he said. "When they ask me for $16.9 million over and above what has already been budgeted, then that tells me that they haven't been spending that money properly, and they have been spending it instead on feel-good projects."
Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman agrees, zeroing in on publicly funded art initiatives.
"I haven't reviewed every aspect of the city of Boise's budget, but there are certain indicators that make a person wonder," said Hoffman. "For example, the city has a tremendous number of arts-related projects in which the city takes money out of people's pockets and then tells them that they have to fund a particular artistic endeavor, whether they like it or not."
Hoffman said city leaders haven't passed what he calls a simple test:
"Whenever the government proposes to raise taxes, they have to look people in the eye and say, 'We've done everything humanly possible to eliminate waste and make sure that you hang on to as much of your money as you possibly can.' There simply hasn't been a thorough, thoughtful discussion on this. Every time I look, I see a city that still spends on wasteful endeavors, and has not fought hard enough to figure out ways of rooting out unnecessary spending."
Hoffman said he didn't like to get into "the minutiae of elections," but added "I think there is genuine opposition to this."
And Hall was even more adamant.
"It's a pipe dream for them to get a two-thirds majority with the economy the way it is," he said. "They say it's only $12 a year; well, if somebody doesn't have an extra $12 in their budget, it might as well be $1,000. Boiseans can't afford it, and they're tired of city management not spending our money appropriately."
Door to Door
Brookover and Sloan smiled when they were asked about what they call token opposition to the bonds.
"You can listen to those few, or you could listen to the people of Boise," said Sloan. "I've been talking to a lot of small business owners, and they know better than anyone that when things aren't very easy, that's exactly when you make the right investments. And this is the right time."
Sloan and Brookover both agreed that old-school retail politics was probably their best bet to secure a two-thirds majority.
"It's door to door in as many neighborhoods as possible, from now until Election Day," said Brookover. "And we have a lot more volunteers manning the phone banks. We're trying to touch people in any way we can."
And that includes a unique campaign video; but voters haven't seen the 30-second spot on television. Instead, it's being pumped out through YouTube, with the social platform specifically targeting Boise-area users. Boise Weekly has learned that the slick video was crafted by Boise-based Wide Eye Productions.
"Yes, it was designed for YouTube," campaign spokeswoman Shelby Scott told BW. "If we raise more campaign funds in the remaining days of the campaign, maybe you'll see it on television but for now, it's for the Web."
And television isn't cheap.
"Oh, yes, media gets really expensive," said Brookover. "But make no mistake, this is a professionally run campaign."