Only You Can Stop HURA’s Tax Siphoning Scheme

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Guest Opinion

I’m calling on Hayden residents to defend our town by attending the Hayden Urban Renewal Agency (HURA) open house at Hayden City Hall between 4:00 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. We need to tell those who run HURA we do not want its district boundaries expanded an additional 70 acres. Join me to speak against more HURA tax skimming.

You may be asking yourself, “What is HURA?” In 2005, the Hayden City Council created HURA under the authority of the Urban Renewal Law in Idaho code, Title 50 Chapter 20. The law’s necessity is described in the code as “…there exist in municipalities of the state … deteriorating areas … which constitute a … menace … that the existence of such areas contributes substantially and increasingly to the spread of disease and crime.” That sure sounds scary. But when most of us think of urban blight in Idaho, we think of an abandoned warehouse building in Boise full of squatters. We do not envision urban blight as an open prairie field that becomes a Walmart, but that did not deter HURA.

I maintain that HURA exists through a Robin-Hood-in-reverse scheme enabled through tax increment financing.

Tax increment financing involves freezing the tax assessment of a land parcel within HURA’s 720-acre (two square mile) district boundaries at a specific point in time. Thereafter, taxing districts, such as the city of Hayden, only receive tax revenue based on the prior baseline assessment, with no increases from development, inflation, or appreciation. Instead, the normal increase in taxes for a given property — the “tax increment” — flows into the coffers of HURA’s unelected board, establishing a slush fund to use as they see fit.

Map of HURA’s current 720-acre district boundaries from HURA’s website on November 19, 2023

In 2005, the bare land where the Hayden Walmart now sits, paid about $1,300 dollars in property tax. That land is in HURA’s district, and Walmart is now paying about $109,000 dollars a year in property taxes. Of those annual taxes, about $79,000 dollars flow to the unelected board of HURA, and $29,130 dollars go to other taxing entities, while a mere $870 dollars find their way to the City of Hayden.

It is notable that Walmart is responsible for a huge number of public safety calls in Hayden, yet the burden of paying for law enforcement falls on the Hayden taxpayers who live outside of HURA’s district. Another example is the Razzle’s Bar & Grill. This establishment pays their relatively small 2005 baseline tax to the City of Hayden, and other taxing districts, and the rest of their taxes — the “tax increment” — goes to those who run HURA. Multiply this dynamic by all the businesses and homes within HURA’s district boundaries, and the problem becomes self-evident.

The City of Hayden, and other taxing entities, are stripped of their fair share of tax revenue, while HURA siphons the majority of property taxes into the hands of an unelected board, who decides where, how, and when to spend the monies, often while regular Hayden residents remain unaware until plans are well underway.

Last year, this tax increment financing across the entire 720-acre HURA district siphoned $858,507 in property taxes. This money should have gone to the City of Hayden, Kootenai County, Lakes Highway, Kootenai EMS, and other taxing districts, but instead went into the hands of HURA. The net effect of this tax siphoning is that Hayden residents, and businesses outside of HURA’s district boundaries, need to make up for the shortfall, every year.

Over the years, this redirection of taxes has given the HURA board members a slush fund now sitting near $6 million. Increasing HURA’s district with a 70-acre expansion will only exacerbate this unfair arrangement. That is why it is a horrible idea.

Map showing the current HURA district boundaries in blue, with proposed 70-acre expansion in green. Posted in the Hayden City Council Regular Meeting Agenda on October 24, 2023.

Some of HURA’s expenditures are worthwhile. For example, last year HURA agreed to help fund the Hayden City Hall’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) upgrades, and wrapped the utility boxes in the downtown core with artwork. HURA has also worked to acquire land to relieve congestion at some intersections. But the majority of HURA’s expenditures benefit specific businesses with land purchases and improvements that represent sweetheart deals to favored ventures.

For example, in 2013 HURA entered into an agreement with Capone’s to purchase a property adjoining the restaurant. HURA provided risk-free financing to Capone’s by buying the adjoining property. Capone’s agreed to pay for the removal of an old out-of-service gas station, and the paving of a parking lot. Capone’s then purchased the property from HURA, massively expanding its restaurant’s parking lot. This entire arrangement was ostensibly done to expand “public parking,” yet there is no signage that the parking lot is available to the public. Nothing prevented Capone’s from buying the property, and converting it into a parking lot for its own use. It’s unclear how this benefited the community, instead it appears to be capital improvements to a private business.

HURA has also committed to spending $1.6 million on landscaping for Rock Enterprises, as it builds a consignment furniture store. Why should taxpayers underwrite landscaping for a private business to the tune of $1.6 million?

I encourage others in Hayden to write and share other examples of sweetheart deals HURA has made using your tax dollars. They aren’t hard to find.

Is it a coincidence that nearly half of the HURA board members make all, or part, of their living off property development?

Do you get the feeling that taxpayer money isn’t being used for the statute’s intended purpose? If so, then HURA should not be expanded.

Please attend the open house at Hayden City Hall on Tuesday, December 5, 2023, between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., to let HURA board members know you do not approve of expanding their district boundaries.

by Glen Campbell – Hayden, Idaho