Last June, the Lewiston City Council had two decisions to make, one easy and one hard.
The easy one had to do with one of those mostly invisible local government services no one notices unless something goes wrong: Wastewater treatment, which was becoming not exactly an immediate crisis but surely a pressing need. The city’s wastewater facilities were aging and needed replacement and upgrade, soon, and that work isn’t cheap. Tens of millions of dollars would be needed, in the neighborhood of $70 million. The council evidently had no difficulty seeing the need for the work or for raising money for it.
Leading to the second decision. Local governments have two basic ways of going after that money, which would have to be paid ultimately by taxpayers or ratepayers - mostly, that is, the same people, residents of the city. They could put the question, which would be in the form of request for approval of issuance of financial bonds, on the city election ballot. Or they could do something called a “judicial bypass” - a formal request that a district judge unilaterally approve the rate or tax increase, avoiding the vote, on grounds the situation was an emergency.
The council was deeply split. It tilted toward asking a judge to grant permission, which is what happens most often when a local government either doesn’t want to bother with trying to sell the issue to the public, or thinks the voters might turn it down, as they often do in the case of finance issues. Then the Lewiston officials got what might have come to some of them as a shock: two district judges rejected the request.
City Hall then changed course. It launched a large-scale public education campaign, working through social media, community groups, news media and elsewhere to pitch the need for wastewater upgrades.
Back to Lewiston in a moment; here’s some statewide context.
First, the biggest story from the local government finance elections last week came in Canyon County, which for years now has needed a new, or vastly expanded, jail. The county has grown enormously since the last jail facilities were built, and there’s no serious debate about the need. County officials (be it noted: there are not a lot of big government advocates in Canyon County elected office) three times put ballot issues before the voters asking for money for jail expansion; three times they were turned down. On Tuesday they tried again, and lost for the fourth time in a row. And not only did they lose: The vote was about two-thirds in opposition, while a two-thirds favorable was needed for passage. It was a definitive loss.
Around Idaho, a number of relatively routine school issues passed, but many of those for specific new projects failed. A library bond effort failed in Chubbuck, two significant ballot issues in fast-growing Kuna went down, as did a proposal for fire station development in expanding Twin Falls.
But a police station plan in Moscow passed.
And then there’s Lewiston, where the ballot result was really unusual:
Not only did the two wastewater bond issues pass, but they received about 90 percent of the vote. It was a stunning, overwhelmingly favorable vote.
That’s a result worthy of some further study. But one immediate statistic that could be a partial explanation was this: Voter turnout was 22.5 percent, which would be poor for a general or primary election but was actually very strong, uncommonly strong, for a special election like this one.
It was significantly stronger than most of the other bond and levy issue turnouts around the state.
Local governments might take a clue from that. Maybe they don’t need judicial approval as much as they think; what they really need is to spread the word about the needs when they happen, and then get enough voters out to the polls.