Idaho Falls mayor focuses on growth and citizens making a difference in State of the City address - East Idaho News
Idaho Falls

Idaho Falls mayor focuses on growth and citizens making a difference in State of the City address

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IDAHO FALLS – Despite inflation and other financial turbulence across the U.S. in 2023, Idaho Falls is strong.

That’s how Mayor Rebecca Casper kicked off her 2024 State of the City Address at the Holiday Inn event center Wednesday afternoon.

She pointed to multiple “cross-cutting government forces” that have contributed to this. One of those is tourism, which brings people from all over the world into the river city year-round. Another reason, she said, was federal government contracts involved in expansion projects with the Idaho National Laboratory’s cybersecurity, environmental cleanup and nuclear programs.

For the second time in three years, Casper said Idaho Falls was named the best-performing small city in America by the Milken Institute, an independent economic think tank in Santa Monica, California.

“The reason why we qualify for that label … has to do with the strong leadership by our department directors,” Casper said, specifically recognizing Fire Chief Duane Nelson and Idaho Falls Public Library Director Robert Wright.

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The mayor noted several new people who were hired in 2023. Among them were Community Development Services Director Wade Sanner, City Attorney Michael Kirkham, Human Resources Director Darin Jones, and Airport Director Ian Turner.

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She also recognized Kirk Larsen as the city’s newly elected council member and the retirement of his predecessor, Tom Hally, after 20 years of service. He and former councilman Ida Hardcastle are tied for the city’s second longest-serving councilmember. Mel Erickson holds the record of 33 years (1964 to 1997).

Expansion and growth

Among all the expansion projects in 2023, including 26 road improvement projects, Casper said the city received a $950,000 grant from the Federal Aviation Administration last fall to develop a route for direct flights to Los Angeles out of the Idaho Falls airport.

“In the coming months, we’ll be working to establish that route. There’s more to come on that one, so stay tuned,” she said.

The city’s fiber optic network is now the state’s largest open-access fiber network with 95% coverage, Casper said. It’s providing up to 1 gigabit per second of internet speeds to 7,000 homes.

The mayor also expressed excitement for the new law enforcement building, which she says is on track to open sometime this spring.

The newly renovated Funland at the zoo will open for its first full season this summer.

“There is still more work to be done, but the good news is we’ll be able to enjoy Funland as additional amenities and improvements are added,” Casper said. “(Funland) brings a spirit of joy to our community. People take those memories and associate them with living here.”

Mayor Casper
Mayor Casper during the State of the City Address | Rett Nelson,

The city receives less taxes per capita than it used to due to growth, she says. City officials are cautious about how many tax dollars are collected, according to Casper, and they’re always thinking about different ways of funding things.

“Property taxes are the favorite tax to hate in Idaho right now. Those taxes seem so high, so how can I stand up here and tell you that we’re receiving less?” Casper asked.

Part of it has to to do with the passage of Idaho House Bill 389 in 2021, which, among other things, made it so cities could only collect 90% of the value of new construction and only 80% of yields for urban renewal projects.

Half of every tax dollar is used to support police, fire and EMS services, Casper says, and it’s been difficult to keep up with growth as a result.

Still, Casper said the city’s current property tax levy rate of .00540 is the lowest it’s been since she took office 10 years ago.

The recent implementation of impact fees are partly responsible for this, she says.

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“These fees allow us to more directly collect funds to offset the costs associated with growth,” Casper said. “They accomplish this without burdening existing residents … and allow us to keep property taxes low.”

‘Everyone can make a positive difference’

Active citizens make a difference, Casper said.

To those who may be frustrated or upset with government policies, Casper encouraged citizens to be engaged and to voice their concerns to the appropriate person, and to be informed about who that person is.

“You want to be able to compliment and to complain to the right people. We must know who to vote for and who to vote against and so it’s important to be highly informed,” she said.

During her remarks, the mayor also called on residents to attend City Council and other public meetings.

“As mayor, I have a front row seat, and I’ve been able to watch many Idaho Falls citizens make a difference with their time, expertise, their donations, and their thoughtful, instructive and timely comments. If you remember nothing else I say today, please remember that everyone can make a positive difference.”