- Associated Press - Monday, October 19, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho lawmakers tasked with scrutinizing the state’s urban renewal laws remain torn on what, if any, changes should be made to improve oversight on boards that helped lure major companies to Idaho.

The 10-member Urban Renewal Interim Committee met Monday to go over possible solutions, but held off from taking any action until November’s meeting. The panel will submit its recommendation to the 2016 Idaho Legislature.

Urban renewal agencies collect taxes from improvements in their municipal districts and use that money to attract and finance new projects, particularly in blighted areas. Idaho has about 70 agencies in more than 20 counties.

The districts have become go-to solutions for municipalities to boost economic development as local officials have limited options for easy financing. However, critics have argued that agencies operate under low accountability guidelines and take tax dollars away from local government on projects that would have happened anyway.

A key point of contention is how agency members are selected. Idaho law allows city officials to appoint board members rather than having them run for election.

State Sen. Mary Souza, a Republican from Coeur d’Alene, said agency board members should be elected because they manage tax dollars. Iit doesn’t make sense, she said, that school board and highway district members have to run for office, but urban renewal agencies are given a special pass.

The northern Idaho lawmaker has been critical of her own local urban renewal agency’s efforts, questioning its marketing methods and project selection.

“We would be leaving up to the community to decide,” she said, advocating for urban renewal elections. “I think that’s the local control we need.”

But in south-central Idaho, the Twin Falls urban renewal district has been hailed for attracting big name companies like Greek-yogurt producer Chobani and Clif Bar to build facilities - in turn creating hundreds of jobs - in the area.

Republican Rep. Lance Clow of Twin Falls said he favors selection by appointment because it ensures that experts will be part of the decision making rather than someone who will promise not to raise taxes, which is a common campaign refrain for Idaho candidates.

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