Eastern Idaho voters were feeling generous this month, passing two previously failed bonds and a new measure, all with more than 70 percent approval — exceeding even the difficult two-thirds majority requirement.
During the election, voters paved the way for a community college in Idaho Falls.
They also approved Power County Hospital District’s $14.95 million bond to expand and improve its facilities. And they passed Soda Springs School District’s $6.5 million bond to upgrade Tigert Middle School.
Blackfoot Mayor Paul Loomis said City Council members will discuss the pool bond election results and what to do next during their June 6 meeting.
Still, voters approved all of the other requests even though they will lead to more taxes. So what made the difference this year? Are people feeling more confident in the economy so they’re willing to spend more, or did they just agree with the projects and needs? It may be a bit of both.
Dan Cravens, Bingham County Republican Party chairman and a former regional economist for the Idaho Department of Labor, believes a good economy can help when it comes to passing such measures.
“I think people who are more optimistic are willing to invest in projects and efforts such as the community college in Idaho Falls and the hospital in Power County,” he said.
He adds that voters can spend more if their budget isn’t too tight and they aren’t worried about whether they’ll have a job in six months.
Esther Eke, southeastern regional economist for the Idaho Department of Labor, says the economy in Southeast Idaho looks strong now. As of March, the unemployment rate was 3.3 percent. That isn’t as low as the pre-recession level, but it’s still enough to tighten the labor market and put upward pressure on wages, she noted.
Still, Eke says it’s hard to make a definite connection between the passage of the measures and voters’ perceptions of the economy — especially because the hospital and middle school bonds failed last fall and not much has changed since then.
“However it does say a lot about the perceived importance of these projects (or at least the successful communication of the importance of these projects) to the community,” Eke wrote in an email response to the Journal. “Eastern Idahoans apparently feel the costs of the increased taxes pale in comparison to the potential benefits these projects will bring to the community.”
It may have also helped that the Power County Hospital District request dropped slightly from $15.25 million last November to $14.95 million this year. The Tigert Middle School bond remained the same. Both bonds did receive a majority approval among voters last fall, but they failed to meet the supermajority requirement.
While the economy has been improving in recent years after the recession, many are hopeful that these new projects, particularly the community college, will give Eastern Idaho another boost.
Citizens for Affordable Higher Education, the group behind the community college effort, said the community college will create 900 jobs, add $66 million a year to the economy and give people a chance to begin their education at a lower cost.
Jan Rogers, CEO of Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho, calls voters’ decision to convert Eastern Idaho Technical College in Idaho Falls into a community college “a game changer for Eastern Idaho.”
Rogers said the locally controlled college will be able to help draw more businesses to the area because it can quickly add new programs to meet prospective employers’ needs.
Rogers, who previously worked in economic development in the Twin Falls area, said the College of Southern Idaho played a significant role in attracting dozens of companies there.
“We called them our secret weapon,” she said.
Rogers thinks the community college in Idaho Falls — when combined with the other unique educational facilities and assets in Eastern Idaho — will be an even more powerful tool when it comes to drawing companies to this area.
“It really was the missing link,” Rogers said, adding that Eastern Idaho was the only populated region in the state that didn’t have a community college.
Eke agrees that the community college will be beneficial.
“If all the community college does is boost the go-on rate in Eastern Idaho, that would in my mind be more than enough benefit,” Eke wrote. “Eastern Idaho school districts currently have some of the lowest go-on rates in the state. With greater tailored accessibility to education and training starting at the community college, we can expect a boost in the go-on rate in Eastern Idaho. This will have a direct impact on the local economy as Eastern Idahoans are more prepared to meet the current and future demands of employers. A higher skilled workforce can also attract more high-paying jobs into the area.”
The hospital expansion in Power County and the middle school upgrade in Soda Springs will not only have health care and educational benefits, but they could also help the economy.
At a minimum, they will increase construction and possibly retail jobs, according to Eke. She estimates, conservatively, that the hospital project will lead to 30 new construction jobs in Power County and the school upgrades will result in 37 new jobs in Caribou County, including two retail positions.