This week, we’re devoting some time to understanding Idaho’s business personal property tax. Ending that tax is a priority for the governor and some of the state’s biggest businesses. But it generates millions for local government. Yesterday, we explained what the personal property tax is. Today, we go to Power County, in eastern Idaho. Local leaders say getting rid of the tax could have serious effects.
Here’s the full transcript:
MOLLY MESSICK: Power County doesn’t look like much, if you see it from the highway. But people who live here are loyal. You can hear the pride in hospital administrator Dallas Clinger’s voice, when he talks about what he fondly calls “our little hospital.”
DALLAS CLINGER: We have a small emergency center, one major trauma room and then a smaller treatment room…
MESSICK: It has 10 beds and two doctors, and it provides long-term care to 14 elderly residents. It has modern equipment, but the building hasn’t changed much in decades.
CLINGER: It’s not a big hospital; it’s a small hospital. But it’s so critical to our area.
MESSICK: Critical because parts of Power County are downright remote. Clinger says this hospital is saving lives. That’s part of why he has joined the fray. He wants state lawmakers to keep Idaho’s personal property tax.
CLINGER: If it does go away – I’m not sure what we’ll do. I will do everything in my power to keep this little hospital going, because I love it and I know that there’s a huge need for it here. But numbers don’t lie. I don’t know what we’ll do.
MESSICK: Here’s the bind Power County Hospital is in: local taxpayers help keep it afloat. An unusually large amount of the total taxable property in Power County is personal property. If that personal property is suddenly exempt, 40 percent of the tax base that brings revenue to Clinger’s hospital will vanish. A break-even budget will fall into the red.
VICKI MEADOWS: It’s difficult for a small county, Power County, to get the ear of the legislators…
MESSICK: Vicki Meadows is a county commissioner.
MEADOWS: It’s kind of a difficult battle to have.
MESSICK: Meadows was born in Power County. She’s a fourth generation farmer. She says she doesn’t know how the county will pay for important services if its personal property tax revenue is cut in half. She wonders what they’ll do about local law enforcement and road maintenance. And she’s skeptical about one of the arguments for getting rid of the personal property tax: that it will boost growth.
MEADOWS: In order to get Idaho to grow, we have to have the services.
MESSICK: Maybe Boise will be able to capitalize on the tax cut, she says. But no one’s going to plop down a business in a place with bad roads and no hospital. She hopes that realization is dawning on other small communities, too.
MEADOWS: I think people are saying – “Hey, whoa, wait! All of my taxes aren’t bad. I want that snow plow to be in front of the school bus on Monday morning.”
MESSICK: It’s a particular kind of rural place that will lose a big share of total revenue if the business personal property tax goes away. The steepest cuts will come in towns and counties where home values aren’t high, but there is some local industry, like a mine or a manufacturing plant that involves expensive — and taxable — equipment. Meadows is worried her community could go bust.
MEADOWS: If we lose this, we lose our county.
MESSICK: She isn’t speaking figuratively. We’re sitting in her truck outside the courthouse. She’s late for a county commission meeting when she starts wondering aloud about the process for dissolving a county.
MEADOWS: In all reality, this county could have to be – and I don’t even know how that works! I don’t even know if the Legislature knows how that works. I don’t know if there’s ever been a county dissolved. I know there’s been counties that have been split into two different entities.
MESSICK: I’m a little surprised. You’re actually thinking about dissolving the county?
MEADOWS: I think it’s something that we have to look at.
MESSICK: “How can the county function on half the revenue?” she asks. It’s the same story at the school superintendent’s office. Ron Bolinger has spent 40 years working in the local school system. I ask him what he’ll do if the tax on personal property goes away, costing the school district well over a million dollars. Does he have a plan?
RON BOLINGER: At this point in time the answer is no. Quite honestly, I don’t know how we would be able to cope with that. It’s just too great of a loss.
MESSICK: The school district is in pretty much the same spot as the hospital. If the tax base suddenly shrinks, so does its ability to raise money from taxpayers.
BOLINGER: It provides a devastating circumstance. Not just a bad situation, but a devastating circumstance.
MESSICK: Two of Power County’s biggest personal property tax payers are companies you’ve heard of: Simplot and Lamb Weston, owned by ConAgra. Together, they pay more than $2 million in personal property tax in Power County. I asked both companies if they support eliminating the tax, given the impact that could have in some rural communities. Both declined to comment.
As I ended my interview with Dallas Clinger, the hospital administrator, I asked this question: Does he think state lawmakers will repeal the tax? Does he believe the local hardship he and others describe could actually happen? He pauses.
CLINGER: I really believe that I have to work as though it were going to be fully implemented. It has such a negative impact on me, on my community, on my hospital, on my school. So I have to go as though this is on a railroad train headed at full speed, and I’ve got to stand on the tracks and try to stop it.
MESSICK: Clinger is a conservative guy, and he thinks of himself as pro-business. He doesn’t see the effort to repeal the personal property tax as a Republican effort. He just sees it as a bad idea.
For StateImpact Idaho, I’m Molly Messick.
Listen to the first story in this two-part series here.