A bill making its way through the Legislature could lead to county employee layoffs and cuts in services in some local communities, city and county officials across District 26 say.

House Bill 409, sponsored by House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, would freeze the property tax portion of a taxing district’s budget for one year, with the exception of school taxing districts. The bill was approved by the House Revenue and Taxation Committee on Thursday and is now headed to the full House of Representatives for a vote.

With an upcoming primary election in March, Gov. Brad Little’s suggestion that counties cover $8.5 million of Medicaid expansion funding and the possibility of costly new public defense requirements, counties are already facing a potentially tight year financially, Blaine County commissioners Chairman Jacob Greenberg said. The county will likely need to use property tax funds to help supplement state funding for infrastructure, which Greenberg described as “woefully inadequate,” as well, he said.

“I think [a property tax freeze] is going to be detrimental to a lot of counties and devastating to others,” he said.

Blaine County typically increases the property tax portion of its budget by about 3 percent—the legal maximum in Idaho without voter approval—each year. If House Bill 409 passes, the county will likely need to make cuts to services or labor, Greenberg said. He said he doesn’t yet know which services might be affected, but speculated that the county may need to let some employees go.

In Dietrich—one of the district’s smallest cities at about 350 residents—a freeze could mean asking volunteers to take care of some services that are currently covered by the city, such as weed control along the side of the roads, according to Mayor Deborah Moon.

The city is already barely able to cover its services, including the $350 it contributes each month to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, as is, she said.

“In Dietrich we just kind of scrape by and we’re very frugal with what we have now,” Moon said. “We don’t have a lot of growth but because we operate on such a tight budget, any loss to our budget is really devastating to a small city like ours.”

Camas County Commissioner Marshall Ralph, who also opposes the bill, said he was reluctant to speculate about potential cuts in labor or services in his “small, tautly funded” county, which hasn’t seen significant population growth or increased demand for services in recent years. But Ralph sees the bill as a “crude” measure that “doesn’t move a millimeter toward a solution.”

“It’s like attempting to wash dishes with a hammer,” Ralph said.

Rather than freeze property tax budgets for cities and counties, Ralph said, he would like to see the Legislature strengthen the “circuit breaker” tax break program for taxpayers in difficult circumstances and statewide homeowner’s exemption policies to alleviate “financial suffering” in growing counties like Ada.

Greenberg also offered several suggestions for alternatives to a property tax freeze. One suggestion was to index the homeowner’s exemption to rise with market values. Other ideas were an increase to the circuit breaker program and broadening the county’s authority to adopt impact fees to pay for infrastructure.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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