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Boise mayor on timing of $500M+ water bond: ‘Elections are the time to ask those questions.'

City of Boise
City of Boise
This year's City of Boise water bond asks voters how to pay for improvements like repairs and replacements at water treatment facilities over the next ten years.

While some have questioned why 2021 is the ideal time to be putting a massive water bond before voters, Boise Mayor Lauren McLean argues that the timing actually works in the bond’s favor.

“Timing required that we ask the public this year how they'd like us to pay for it,” said McLean. “I believe that if we bond for it, we'll have access to DEQ’s super low interest revolving loan fund.”

One week before Election Day, McLean visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the question being put before Boise voters, and how, even though she’s not on the ballot, the very issues she campaigned on two years ago are very much a part of this year’s political conversation.

“We're talking with the EPA about some super low interest loans, all of which we could acquire and go after, if the public allows us to bond… and that'll keep rates low.”
Lauren McLean

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. We're going to talk about water this morning. Water… it's right there, always at the turn of our wrist. It powers our homes. Water helps stock our shelves with fresh food… and quite often, it's something we take for granted. But this year, water is very much a part of the conversation in Boise. Indeed, water is on the ballot in this year's election - a multi-million-dollar water renewal bond - and we're going to talk a bit about that with Boise Mayor Lauren McLean. Mayor McClean, good morning.

LAUREN MCLEAN: Good morning, George. Thanks for having me today.

PRENTICE: I have learned over time that if you can't break down the explanation of a bond or a levee in about 30 seconds, your uphill climb gets a bit steeper with voters. So, I'm going to give you that opportunity to see if you can simplify this bond as best you can.

MCLEAN: I will do my best and make it 30 seconds… because you're very right. I mean, these things need to be simple. And this is a really important issue for our community. We are asking the public how they would like us to fund the projects that we need to complete to keep our water clean - . and as you said, our pipes running and everything else. So, this year we're asking the voters,”Would you like us to bond for improvements?” And by doing that, we can keep rates predictable and affordable; and we know affordability is so important. Or, “Would you prefer us for us to pay cash and then we have to raise that cash with rates, the projects that we're doing?” This bond keeps rates affordable, and will keep our water renewable because we'll be updating our facilities and then preparing for the future and then it'll keep the Boise River clean, which is incredibly important to all of us.

PRENTICE: So for the record, the bond does not greenlight a project. It determines how to pay for it.

Courtesy Lauren McLean

MCLEAN: Over the years, we took in thousands of pieces of advice, suggestions, testimony from our community, and as we look to the future because it's time to replace aging facilities in our city that were built many, many years ago. And we took that advice, put together a water renewal plan that also the public had a chance to comment on a year ago. And now we're asking Boise how they'd like us to pay for it.

PRENTICE: It's interesting that you did bring up timing because I think more than a few people have questioned the timing of the bond. So let me put that to you: Why this year?  And why not spend a bit more time getting the public's input? Not so much on the project, because you're saying indeed, that's been going on for several years, but the public's input on this bond?

MCLEAN: Well, elections are the time to ask those questions.  And we've got to begin the planning, the designing, and the entire process to update our facilities so that we are ready to build when we need to build. And so, timing required that we ask the public this year how they'd like us to pay for it. I believe that if we bond for it, we'll have access to DEQ’s super low interest revolving loan fund. We're talking with the EPA about some super low interest loans, all of which we could acquire and go after, if the public allows us to bond… and that'll keep rates low.

PRENTICE: Over the years I've heard, specifically from Public Works, that we do have some significant problems, specifically at the Lander Water Renewal Plant; and we've heard of stories of pipes under the plant beginning to corrode. That sounds pretty urgent.

MCLEAN: Well, George, that plant was built in the 1950s after a bond was passed by Boise to fund it. And you know, we're seeing for the first time across the country as well as in our own community that the infrastructure is aging out. And so yes, some of the first things we will be doing will be updating, renovating and preparing for new work at Lander Street.

PRENTICE: I think it's fair to say that you support the bond. There's also a group calling itself “Yes for Clean and Affordable Water.” They have gotten some significant donations from Micron and some developers. Is there anything you can tell me about that group?

MCLEAN: Sure, that's the campaign that came together to support the bond, to educate the public and advocate for passage of the bond,

PRENTICE: How do you keep that firewall up between your office and electioneering?

MCLEAN: That's why there's a campaign, because the campaign needs to advocate and our city needs to educate. And so here at the city, we are sharing with voters that No. 1, everybody in Boise or whoever's a water user in Boise can vote in this election. That's super important for folks to know. Not everybody has a council person up, but everybody can vote if you are a user of the sewer within the city limits. So, the City of  Boise is doing stuff like that. And then a campaign came together independently of the city to make sure that people understand how important it is if we want to keep rates affordable, protect our Boise River and prepare for a more resilient future and climate action. The bond is the most affordable way to do it.

PRENTICE: How concerned are you of low voter turnout?

MCLEAN: Well, you know me, George. Over the years, I've always been involved in elections, and always been really committed to community engagement. And so, for me, turnout is important. I want Boiseans to be engaged. We're seeing all indicators show right now that turnout could be lower. But I am happy to see in the last couple of weeks more and more conversations about what's on the ballot and the importance of voting, because I want to hear from Boise. And this is the best way to do it.

PRENTICE: Your name is not on the ballot this year, but can you agree that the sewer bond and the city council elections are, in some form, a barometer of how people feel about how things are going at City Hall?

MCLEAN: Well, the water renewal bond is fairly simple. It is asking voters because we want to hear from voters how they would like us to pay for projects. It's not about clean water projects per se, but it is giving voters a choice for how they'd like to pay for those projects. It's a financing question on the ballot. And what I'm hearing in the community conversations about the election are that the issues that we've been working on matter to Boise. And the candidates out there are talking about affordable housing. Talking about climate action, talking about building a strong economy and protecting Boise and what we love about this place as we grow. And I'm encouraged to hear those conversations and to know that what I'm working on, I ought to be working on just as I planned to. And I look forward to working with the next council on the very issues that still matter.

PRENTICE: Without giving me any names, are you supporting any of the candidates? Or are you staying on the sidelines?

MCLEAN: I haven't jumped into any of the races. Of course I'll be voting. In fact, I am voting this week early at City Hall. Come on down to City Hall from eight to five and vote early if you’d like. And you can register to vote here at City Hall and vote right after if you'd like to do that. And I’m looking forward… and have enjoyed seeing the poll workers downstairs, looking forward to seeing more Boise come into vote and I'll be right there with you.

PRENTICE: And early voting continues through this week, Election Day, one week from today. Mayor Lauren McLean, thank you and have a great rest of your morning.

MCLEAN: Thank you, George. Have a great day.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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