Council greenlights local option tax for Nov. ballot

Measure intended to make non-residents pay their share, but public feedback is mixed

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

In a special meeting Sept. 8, the Sandpoint City Council voted 4-1 to approve a resort city local option tax of 1% for inclusion on the Tuesday, Nov. 2 ballot.

The LOT is a funding mechanism available to cities with fewer than 10,000 population — a measure under which Sandpoint barely slipped in the 2020 census — and is applied to sales tax in order to capture a portion of dollars spent by visitors in order to defray their impacts on local infrastructure. A recent example of the LOT was funding for redevelopment at War Memorial Field — approved, as the new local option tax must be — by a supermajority of voters at the ballot in November.

Mayor Shelby Rognstad opened the meeting with a strong statement about COVID-19, admonishing residents to get vaccinated, and connected the issue with the LOT.

“This is all preventable,” he said of resurgent case numbers and fatalities from the pandemic that has dominated daily life around the world for nearly a year and a half. “Ninety-seven percent of patients admitted to the hospital are unvaccinated. … Vaccines aren’t killing people; COVID is killing people.”

Sandpoint City Hall. Photo by Ben Olson.

What also kills people, Rognstad said, are preventable diseases stemming from lifestyle choices — various cancers, heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and suicide, he said. These fatal conditions, he added, can be mitigated with greater access to the outdoors — which could be achieved by passing a 1% LOT to fund a number of projects approved by the Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Master Plan.

“The more we can encourage our kids to be outdoors … the healthier that we’ll be,” he said. “I think this is very relevant to what’s going on right now and very relevant to the health of our community.”

Council members Joel Aispuro and Deb Ruehle took issue with Rognstad’s connection between COVID-19 and taxing authority. Aispuro said that while the community struggles with depression, anxiety and addiction (Idaho ranks among the highest in the nation for a variety of mental health problems, including suicide), he’s never heard anyone speak from the dais on that topic — until Sept. 8, which he characterized as “tugging on heartstrings to approve a 1% tax.”

Ruehle, who has provided regular COVID-19 updates at City Council meetings for months, also objected to “tugging at heartstrings” and broadened her concerns about the LOT vote to the perceived need for speed in a decision.

“What’s the rush? Why are we in such a hurry?” she said. “I am struggling that we have to process this so rapidly; that we have to get this on this voting cycle.”

In a phone interview before the meeting, Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton told the Reader that time is of the essence, when it comes to the confluence of the parks plan and available funding.

One major funding opportunity will occur in January 2022, as tranches of money for COVID-19 relief from the federal government are funnelling into public infrastructure projects, many of which align with the Parks and Rec Master Plan. If the LOT fails in the November vote, it will be another year before the city can again bring the measure before constituents.

“In order for us to be competitive [for grants] we need shovel-ready designs,” Stapleton told the Reader. “We should and do expect that there will be a requirement for match money — they want significant, local commitment to these projects and that’s where a local option tax is so critical.”

That is, funds raised by a LOT can be used to leverage even more funding, far beyond what local taxpayers can, or could, bear.

Stapleton said that despite the current building and population boom, Sandpoint remains a small community in relation to the number of people who enjoy its amenities.

“It’s not just tourist dollars,” she said, “it’s a way to leverage dollars from individuals who are part of our greater community who are not property taxpayers in Sandpoint.”

Put simply, she said, “Our residents cannot afford to appropriately maintain and upgrade the amenities they have with the impact imposed on them by tourists and other visitors.”

Whether or not residents even want these amenities is a mixed question. Based on 785 overall responses to a city-led survey on the LOT — which would be allocated to parks projects, as outlined in the master plan — the result was 48% in favor, 37% against and 15% unsure. Whether those results were broken among respondents residing within Sandpoint city limits or simply registered voters, the proportions remained essentially the same.

According to projections, which city staff based on conservative estimates, if a LOT was enacted amid the current burst of growth, the municipal coffer could grow by more than $12 million over a seven-year period.

Council members, led by President Shannon Sherman, voted in favor of putting the LOT on the November ballot (with Ruehle voting “nay”), though asked that its scope be broadened so as not to bind the city into a specific menu of projects. 

Based on that input, the language of the measure now directs LOT funding to City Beach, the downtown waterfront (a.k.a. “Farmin’s Landing”), Travers and Centennial parks (a.k.a. the “sports complex”), sidewalk and infrastructure work and the purchase of additional open space. The additional space referred to at the meeting focused on the Baldy property currently used as a disc golf course, though polling was about 50/50 on whether it should be transferred to recreational use. 

The city purchased the Baldy property using sewer funds. If it is to become a recreational area, the city would need to purchase it for between $1 million and $2 million (its assessed value, according to officials) in general fund monies.

Final ballot language will be drafted in advance of the November election, and noticed when it is completed.

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