I read the recent article on “greedy price hiking by local landowners” as quoted from Mr. Jim Johnston with great dismay. His justifications for our higher taxes make no sense. First, “free” public libraries are available all over this country, not just in Pocatello — this is not an extra service and not a reason for our high property taxes as suggested by Mr. Johnston. Second, the majority of our “robust public transportation system” is funded by federal grant money, not property tax dollars — as a former City Council member, surely Mr. Johnston is aware of this fact. Third, many portions of the wonderful trail system in our local area were funded and continue to be funded and maintained by private foundations, not solely by the city of Pocatello taxpayers.
On a positive note, we agree on the larger point. Mr. Johnston, realtor and interim CEO of Bannock Development Corporation, confirmed that Pocatello and Bannock County struggle to attract new businesses and to grow economically — not a good thing, but we can agree. Apparently, it has taken the honesty of the CEO of the Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho (REDI) to generate acknowledgement from another credible source that we have a problem with economic development. Why has it taken so long for local leaders to admit this issue exists, and what have they done to address it? Adding to that, the U.S. Census Bureau “QuickFacts” site (as of Dec. 30), shows Pocatello with the highest poverty level of top 10 populated cities in Idaho. In Pocatello, 18.5 percent of our population live at or below the poverty level as compared with Idaho Falls (13.4 percent), Twin Falls (14.8 percent), Caldwell (16.5 percent), Nampa (15.0 percent) and Boise (13.7 percent). Census Bureau data also shows Pocatello having the second slowest growing population of top 10 populated cities — Lewiston being the only one slower. With a 4.4 percent population growth from April 2010 to July 2019, Pocatello is significantly below Idaho Falls (8.7 percent), Twin Falls (13.3 percent), Caldwell (26.2 percent), Nampa (21.2 percent) and Boise (9.3 percent).
One important clarification — Mr. Zebe misattributed a statement to the CEO of REDI later in this same article. The CEO of REDI never once made any statement about our area having the “highest taxes in the state.” Listen to what was said to our elected leaders during the Nov. 12, 2020, meeting available for viewing on the city webpage. REDI simply pointed out that when businesses look at our area, they do not understand what is going on with our property taxes. As such, they simply turn toward other, more business/cost-friendly areas instead. Later, Mr. Zebe states that “when a company is looking to make a decision in a community, the taxes they would pay are not a condition for them to do business here — the ease of doing business in the community is.” I emphatically disagree. Companies analyze all cost factors when considering a move to a new area, including the cost of housing and property taxes for key employees they may wish to relocate. That is just good business. “Relationships” and ease of doing business are not without merit, but the cost of doing business cannot be ignored — it is more often “the bottom line” that sways decisions.
Mr. Johnston and Mr. Zebe, as local real estate professionals, are likely well informed about our high poverty level, the disparity of residential property valuations, and the spike in need for affordable housing and rentals. They are now both on record agreeing that our area has deterrents to economic development. So it is curious to me that while so much of the undeveloped land in Pocatello lies within Northgate, greed and inflated valuations are cited as the reasons for the lack of economic development.
We, as a community, do not have the power nor should we to sway landowners regarding the value of their land. It is their land to do with as they please. Under our rules of democracy and freedom, we allow market economics — the rules of supply-and-demand — to resolve these issues over time. While I agree with both Mr. Johnston and Mr. Zebe that landowner greed and inflated land values can negatively impact local economic growth, I draw the line at calling them “reasons” for our lack of economic growth. Especially since nearby Idaho Falls is growing at almost double the rate of Pocatello! When examining our lack of economic growth, we must focus on concrete, measurable issues we CAN do something about as a community — things that local elected leaders CAN take actions to correct. These are the only viable “reasons” to consider. Not throwing our hands up and saying “it’s landowner greed and inflated property values causing our problems with economic development.” That is simply not true.
As shown by U.S. Census Bureau data, our area has a high poverty level and limited population growth. We need to ask why? High residential property taxes impact everyone — not just property owners or businesses looking to move here, but renters, too. Renters must pay constantly-increasing rent to cover these costs. Until we make the necessary sacrifices to reduce property taxes and bring our levy rate more into alignment with our competitors, we will continue to struggle to compete with other areas better able to offer more for less. We cannot grow either our business base or our population without significant changes and more cooperation from our local leaders, both elected and business leaders.
Can we really expect different results when no significant changes have been made addressing our weaknesses? We need to complete an honest analysis and ask tough questions. Do we continue to invest our tax dollars into multiple economic development entities or is that “throwing-good-money-after-bad?” What does strong economic development leadership look like? Shouldn’t it center around building cooperative relationships and capitalizing on strengths so we can address the real and solvable problems surrounding our lack of economic development? Why is there a lack of evidence of collaboration/cooperation between our cities, Bannock County, the Pocatello Development Authority, Bannock Development, REDI and perhaps Idaho State University? I believe that to succeed in generating economic development locally we must: 1) ask these questions of our leaders; 2) Identify and address our weaknesses; 3) limit and target our economic development efforts more precisely; and 4) stop using the current “spray-it-with-buckshot-and-eventually-you’ll-hit-something” approach to economic development. That is going to take strong leadership and a strategic plan — something we can work toward establishing in 2021.
Please consider becoming involved in your local community efforts such as Pocatello for Accountable Government Entities (P.A.G.E.) on Facebook, routinely checking the Facebook pages of our City Council members, attending future City Council meetings, and asking questions of our elected leaders via the City website at: pocatello.us/directory.aspx?did=36. The electorate has chosen its leaders. Now we need to follow through on our votes and “help” these elected leaders understand that we do care about improving our economic environment and reducing the level of poverty in our city. We want Pocatello to be more appealing to businesses looking to relocate. We need good-paying jobs from financially stable companies that want to become part of our community for the long haul. That, in turn, will grow our economy and help lower our poverty level. A larger commercial tax base also means an overall higher city-wide valuation, resulting in less reliance on homeowners to foot such a large part of the cost of city government and property taxes in Pocatello.
Lydia Noble is a longtime resident of Pocatello, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, and recently retired from a 30-year career at the Idaho National Laboratory as a business professional. She co-founded Pocatello for Accountable Government Entities (P.A.G.E.) out of concern about Pocatello’s high property taxes and to work to ensure that retirees on fixed incomes are able to continue residing in Pocatello.