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Coping with the Great Recession

From Boise Weekly, George Prentice, 05/02/12

Down and Out

The problem started with a hammer. In fact, way too many hammers. The soundtrack of the economically flush times, only a decade ago, was the incessant noise of hammers echoing across the Treasure Valley. Simply put, we built too many homes.

“A lot of people think that the Boise economy was buttressed by software and Micron and all the rest,” said Todd Shallat, director of Boise State’s Center for Idaho History and Politics. “But what the economy is really all about is how the Treasure Valley went crazy with construction.”

Shallat and a team of students, scholars, editors and civic leaders have spent the better part of a year chronicling what went wrong in what many pundits have called “the great recession.” Their findings have been compiled in Down and Out in Ada County.

“A year ago, for a previous publication, we examined Boise’s sprawl problem,” said Shallat. “In many ways, we lead the nation in our severity of sprawl and that, in turn, led us to a great deal of unsustainable housing stock.”

Shallat and his team are convinced that when an economic recovery finally settles in (but he doesn’t expect that happening anytime soon), the analysis will show that while Idahoans continued to build too many houses, they spent too little time or energy on public infrastructure.

“This is what we call a ‘structural recession,’ unlike anything we had before,” he said. “Even after unemployment recovers, we will have a structural weakness in the Ada County recovery. And it has everything to do with bad planning.”

When asked if the Treasure Valley’s governmental entities were prepared to correct the course, Shallat took a long breath and exhaled a long, “Noooooooooooo.”

“That’s part of the problem. There’s too many of them,” said Shallat, who rattled off a laundry list of local governments. “You can’t even get all the agencies in one room.”

As Shallat’s team researched the book, experts ushered in to brief the would-be authors on how Ada County got so down and out. Social service providers, civic planners and law enforcement all weighed in.

“[Ada County] Sheriff Gary Raney shocked the heck out of me,” said Dennis O’Dell, 61, a 16-year veteran of the National Security Agency and one of the student authors of Down and Out in Ada County. “Raney said that there were 250 people at the Ada County Jail when he was first elected. Today, he said, there are more than 1,000 people behind bars and 750 of them shouldn’t be there.”

O’Dell’s contribution to Down and Out in Ada County is a chapter on how the recession has tipped the balance of justice, in particular decreased funding to Idaho Legal Aid Service.

“In the good years, they could serve one out of five people that applied for assistance,” said O’Dell. “Today they can probably only serve one out of 18 eligible clients.”

O’Dell said an increasing number of legal aid offices have limited their hours and too many positions remain unfilled.

“I looked at their organization chart,” said O’Dell. “There were so many spots that said vacant, vacant, vacant.”

Laurie Rodgers, 31, another of the book’s authors, set her sights on education. She’s poised to pick up her bachelor’s of science degree in sociology at Boise State’s commencement on Saturday, May 12, and she’s anxious to begin work on a master’s in community and regional planning, also at Boise State.

“Of course, education was my choice,” said Rodgers. “I took a long, hard look at public education in the Boise and Meridian school districts.”

The Independent School District of Boise and the Meridian Joint School District No. 2 comprise approximately 20 percent of the state’s total K-12 enrollment, a total of more than 65,500 students. Rodgers’ primary focus was on recent supplemental levy elections in both districts.

“Last year’s ‘no’ vote in Meridian was so devastating,” she said. “The right-wing media spun that issue and their argument had little to do with education.”

Rodgers said the argument against the 2011 levy was daunting–with homeowners stretching every dollar they had in a bad economy, opponents convinced many Meridian residents that they simply couldn’t afford to vote “yes.” Ultimately, the Meridian district came back to its citizens and asked them to approve a scaled-back supplemental levy in February, which passed.

“But Meridian is scraping by. I just don’t know how they’re going to get through the next couple of years,” said Rodgers.

On the flip side, Rodgers said a well-managed supplemental levy campaign in Boise passed overwhelmingly because of what she wrote was a “qualitative and quantitative difference in how each district chose to portray its budget outlook.” While Meridian chose to highlight a “detailed story of each cut the school board chose, the Boise School District accented the accomplishments they’ve made despite cuts.”

“[Boise] had great success,” said Rodgers. “Especially considering our current economic circumstance.”

Down and Out also includes an apples-to-apples comparison between the current downturn and 1982.

“We were in the midst of an oil crisis, high unemployment and, of course, high inflation, or as they used to call it at the time, ‘stagflation,'” said Daniel Gans, referring to the slang of when inflation and unemployment skyrocket while economic growth slows to a crawl.

Gans, 30, who will also graduate from Boise State on May 12, was a newborn in 1982 but he was tutored on Boise’s last great recession by the man who served as mayor for the City of Trees from 1974-1986: Richard Eardley.

“Mayor Eardley told me, ‘We learned to live with less,'” said Gans. “The sudden loss of revenue caught Boise off guard.”

Gans’ chronicle of the ’82 recession included the reduction of 200 teachers in one year from the Boise School District, the elimination of 100 courses at Boise State and significant cuts to public safety.

“Boise had to close down a fire station and lay off firefighters and police officers,” said Gans. “And it took us a long time to recover. By 1990, we still had fewer firefighters employed in Boise than there were in 1978.”

Eardley said the times were incredibly difficult, but, he said, “We kept the city alive.”

Eardley’s 2012 counterpart, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, also contributed to Down and Out. Along withLisa McGrath, an attorney who specializes in new media law, and Landis Rossi, executive director of Catholic Charities of Idaho, Bieter was asked to offer his thoughts on how Boise might avoid the austerity seen in 1982. One of his comments rang familiar:

“We cannot continue to rely so heavily on housing construction, an industry and a market that may never regain their former vigor,” wrote Bieter.

While Down and Out documents how the Treasure Valley copes with its current great recession, it also includes a surprise or two.

“For instance, our local food economy is much, much bigger than people think,” said Shallat. “The wine industry, the beer industry. It’s big. And guess what? That will be the topic of our next book. You can look for that next year.”

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