Small Towns, Big Money Anxiety

Without a large tax base to rely on, the Magic Valley’s smallest towns, like Minidoka, must often make do with aging infrastructure until town operations are endangered.
2012-05-06T02:03:00Z 2013-03-28T13:34:26Z Small Towns, Big Money AnxietyBy Laurie Welch Twin Falls Times-News

MINIDOKA • Idaho Highway 24 comes to a T intersection 13 miles northeast of Rupert.

To the west, miles of state highway stretch unimpeded toward Dietrich. But an eastbound turn leads to a place where the pace of both traffic and life slows.

Only miles south of the lava rock scar that is Craters of the Moon National Monument, the 112-resident town of Minidoka remains much like it has been for decades. For many who call the 10-street town home, that’s just fine.

The Longhorn Bar and Cafe sign at the highway junction promises passersby home cooking, snacks, soda and beer, and people watering their lawns or washing cars stop what they’re doing to wave.

“We’re safe here,” said Joyce Kofoed, Minidoka’s city clerk and postmaster. “People don’t have to worry when their kids are outside playing. It’s a small town and you know everybody.”

But even keeping Minidoka small comes at a cost. In a town that that’s actually lost residents since 2000, a tiny tax base and stagnant revenues can present problems when aging roads crack and crumble, or when the town well runs dry.

Trouble Underfoot

Like a straw at the bottom of a near-empty soda bottle, Minidoka’s water pump sputtered and sucked air before shutting down last year.

When the town’s workers dropped the pump to the bottom of the 225-foot well, they found less than 12 feet of water remaining.

Now, nobody knows how long the water will last.

“So we’re not out of water, but we don’t want to be out of water and trying to put a well in,” said Mayor Becky Ziebach, who also owns the Longhorn.

To meet a requirement that Idaho cities have two wells, Minidoka currently leases an old railroad well. But water from it isn’t potable and can only be used to water parks.

The city received $32,000 in federal grants to study its water needs, but the study alone is expected to last another 10 months. With some residents unconvinced of the need for the study, Ziebach said the money “would have gone a long way” toward the $250,000 cost to replace the town well.

Minidoka taxpayers are still footing the bill for the pump, tank and water lines built 12 years ago. The city brings in only $121,000 in annual revenue, and property taxes contribute about $15,000 each year.

Unable to afford a fix on their own, Minidoka officials are looking elsewhere in the hope that a funding source will materialize before the well goes dry.

“The residents know we don’t have the money to follow through with this unless we get grant money,” Kofoed said.

Small Cities Struggle More

In Idaho’s urban areas, increased infrastructure needs are often — at least in theory — accompanied by increased revenues.

New streets are accompanied by new homes or businesses and new taxpayers held within. In this simplified view, growth both spurs infrastructure needs and increases revenues to cover related costs.

Regional hubs like Twin Falls challenge that assumption, though, as south-central Idaho’s largest city struggles to keep pace with road maintenance projects. Thousands of out-of-town shoppers and workers commute to the city on a daily basis, but don’t pay city property taxes that support the services they use.

For the smallest of south-central Idaho’s 34 incorporated cities, covering infrastructure needs involves a different equation.

“It’s a matter of economy of scale,” said Carleen Herring, vice president of Region IV Development, a private nonprofit that works with area municipalities on infrastructure projects to promote job creation or economic diversification.

Without commuter needs to consider, many area small towns face only maintenance projects. But when a major expense comes up, small towns can only look so far to spread out the costs.

Minidoka’s new well, for example, would cost each resident more than $2,200 without outside funding assistance. Spread a project with the same cost among Twin Falls’ 44,000 residents, and it drops to $5.68 per person.

The state’s recent urban migration isn’t helping rural cities, either. According to the Idaho Department of Labor, more rural counties lost population between 2011 and 2010 than at any other time since the 1980s.

In most cases, Idaho’s small towns are getting even smaller.

“And the costs of public improvements just continue to go up, making the ability of some cities to fund infrastructure even more difficult,” Herring said.

But towns like Minidoka can seek help from Region IV, which doesn’t charge for its help at the beginning of projects. Harding said Region IV has worked with small towns across south-central Idaho on a variety of projects.

Region IV charges a fee based on the scope of the project as it moves toward construction, and helps city officials navigate the strings often tied to federal funding for cities in distress.

“That way all that stuff doesn’t get dumped on the city clerk,” Herring said.

Some Call it Home

In Minidoka’s heyday, about 2,500 people lived and worked at the railroad junction that now sends trains either south toward Rupert or back along their east-west route.

But after a 1906 fire destroyed half the town, many railroad workers and homesteaders dispersed into Minidoka County.

“It never rebuilt to what it was,” Ziebach said.

Today, there are only two small homes for sale and a couple places to rent in town. But for those who call Minidoka home, like 19-year resident Carmen Villasenor, the quality of life the little town offers is unmatched.

“When you go to sleep here at night you know no one will bother you,” she said.

Villasenor would choose to be buried in Minidoka — if only the town had a cemetery.

City officials eager to preserve the town are brainstorming ways to garner more revenue. The city subdivided a donated parcel of land into 13 lots. Ten have sold, but only three homes have been built, limiting the increase in property tax revenue.

A small RV park was also built in the hope of luring tourists drawn to the edge of the high desert and volcanic features at Craters of the Moon.

But progress is slow and city officials feel the clock ticking. Aside from the new well, streets need repairs and the town lacks a sewer system.

Kofoed said a new well and sewer system might encourage some new businesses to come to Minidoka. But 17 miles off the Interstate 84 corridor, the town seems an unlikely hub of growth.

Meanwhile, residents — mostly farm workers — resist digging deeper into their pockets for town upgrades.

Ziebach said next year she is going to try to secure a grant to get the sewer study done — just to give the city that option in the future.

The city has two donated acres set aside as a future sewer facility site, but the project has been on the table for at least 20 years.

“Every time it comes to vote, they turn it down,” Ziebach said.

Everyone on Board

In April, the Gooding County town of Bliss celebrated the opening of its $7 million sewer system.

It’s a program that Herring and Region IV worked on for 22 years. In the end, the city paid only $800,000, while the rest of the project was paid for through a collection of grants, stimulus funding and loans.

Bliss’ 287 residents now pay $43 per month for sewer service.

“When we told them they needed to pass a $1 million bond, you could hear the collective gasp,” Herring said. But 94 percent of voters approved the 2009 bond issue for the project on a 59-4 vote.

Getting voters on board with any financing package — and the bond issue often needed for a city to take on long-term debt — is a major hurdle for any major city project.

“Then we are able to cobble together the resources to make it all work,” Herring said. “But if the people in the town don’t commit to it, why should anyone else?”

For towns like Minidoka, the Bliss sewer project illustrates how the battle for public funding is also a fight to win over public opinion.

“It’s a lot of money, but if we don’t replace it someday we’re going to be out of water,” Ziebach said.

Copyright 2015 Twin Falls Times-News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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