Needs versus wants

1% resort city local option tax ignores vital infrastructure for amenities

By Helen Newton
Reader Contributor

Currently 15 cities in Idaho use taxing authority set up by the state for either resort city taxes or non-property local option taxes or both. These cities’ rates vary from .5% to 7% on a variety of items.

Sandpoint and Ponderay currently add 7% to every hotel/motel bill in their respective cities. Both are scheduled to expire in 2025. Consequently, the tourists are contributing. Could they contribute more? Yes, if the city used its legal authority to tax sales of liquor by the drink and/or restaurant food. Nine Idaho cities tax drinks from 1% to 3%; six tax restaurant food from 1% to 3%. Two cities exempt groceries.

Cities must identify how revenues will be used. According to City Code 3-10-5, Sandpoint’s bed tax revenues are dedicated to: A. infrastructure and capital projects; B. street overlays, sidewalks and bike paths; C. public safety including lifeguards, bike patrol and public transportation; D. public parks operation; and E. any excess to be used for property tax relief. 

Fiscal Year 2022 allocations call for these funds to pay 100% of the SPOT bus contract; 81% of the invasive species budget; and lesser percentages for parks, police and fire budgets. Revenues from the resort city tax in 2022 are projected to be $450,000. The recently expired non-property tax of 3% on all sales within the city financed the improvements to Memorial Field.

Twelve of the 15 cities list infrastructure, which includes both streets and sidewalks and sometimes water and sewer treatment plants. In Kellogg and McCall all revenues are dedicated to streets. Ten cities support parks, nine public safety, seven promotion of their city, five public transportation, two economic development and one affordable housing. 

As you can see, Idaho law allows cities to be very creative in structuring their resort and non-property tax options.

Enabling ordinances also provide that any excess funds are to be used to grant property tax relief to its citizens. 

The expansive 159-page 2020 Parks and Recreation Master Plan appears to me to be the driving force for implementing a new local option tax as quickly as possible. Take a look at it. Projected estimates, at 2019 costs are: $21 million-$29 million for City Beach/Windbag improvements, $7 million-$10 million at Travers and $13 million-$15 million for Sand Creek Park (think Lakeside Motel). Yet only $200,000 per year is dedicated to “support” sidewalks. 

Based solely upon my guesstimate, I wonder if that amount would complete 10 blocks of sidewalks. Why not use whatever is necessary from that stream of revenue to put sidewalks on every block in town? After all, aren’t sidewalks the most basic of pathways? And those sidewalks would provide pathways to our parks for more activities. Imagine little children trying out their training wheels in your neighborhood or your senior citizens getting some exercise to remain healthy. And, if not sidewalks, what about streets? We have plenty of those. 

I have always been a proponent of parks. As with everything, parks require maintenance and upkeep. (And, by the way, kudos to the parks grounds and maintenance employees, who make Sandpoint’s parks system one of the best in the state.) While we are providing a gold standard of public playgrounds, we are ignoring the wear and tear on our streets and overlooking damaged or non-existent sidewalks.

Life offers us a constant menu of choices. Want or need? Need or want? I may “want” a grand home or a vehicle loaded with gadgets; but, when push comes to shove, what I really “need” is adequate shelter and a dependable vehicle. Many in our city are struggling to provide even basic needs. They would like streets that are kind to their aging vehicle and sidewalks for the children to walk to school on. They don’t have expendable income for a boat or a ski pass or tickets to a show in Spokane. They just need the basics and, for many of those, they have to rely on the city: streets, sidewalks, potable water, wastewater treatment and for free recreation, parks, playgrounds and trails. 

So, for myself, I say send the local option/resort city tax back to the drawing board and ask the City Council to use time to restructure it for a 2022 ballot. Address our needs, not beautification and amenities. Do that, city, and you will have my vote in 2022. But not this year.

Helen Newton served as Sandpoint’s city clerk for 24 years and was on the Sandpoint City Council for four years.

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