The state land board knows that the idea of it getting more involved in owning and operating businesses isn’t the easiest sell in the world.
The board has clearly identified in multiple reports in the last decade that convincing people that state involvement in business is OK is a primary impediment to getting changes made to the Idaho Constitution to allow the state Department of Lands to expand its business activities. A “challenge” listed in one publication reads, “Managing the perception that the endowments (government) are in competition with private enterprise.”
So the land board and the Department of Lands is paying veteran Boise public relations man and GOP operative Mike Tracy, a former aide to Sen. Larry Craig, to help make the case.
The land board, chaired by Gov. Butch Otter, hired Tracy to be a buffer between them and reporters and to spread the good word about commercial investment through the media and in visits with beneficiaries of state endowment lands. Tracy will be paid up to $85,000 for the year.
The department cut its communications position for budget reasons early this decade, said George Bacon, director of the department. He said there’s not enough work to warrant a full-time communications position, but the land board and department felt they needed professional representation, so the contract with Tracy, who Gov. Butch Otter and State Controller Donna Jones hired to work on their recent re-election campaigns, was ideal.
“Over the years, we found that Idahoans did not understand their endowment lands, and we felt it important to educate them,” said Bacon. “Tracy Communications was hired to help us educate the public about endowment lands and their purpose.”
Tracy first secured a no-bid professional services contract with the department in 2007. New contracts, each for $85,000, have been approved by the board annually since then.
“Essentially I handle all of same functions that a PIO (public information officer) would for an agency, and I do it at a lower price,” Tracy said.
At a meeting of the land board Nov. 16, department deputy director Kathy Opp, speaking in support of a new contract for Tracy, said the department took a public relations hit over its purchase of a self-storage business in August. The furor came later, in October, when BoiseGuardian.com broke the news about the storage business. The Associated Press, local television stations, local radio stations, and IdahoReporter.com followed with their own stories. IdahoReporter.com subsequently posted a story about the state’s holdings in downtown Boise — something that’s been in place for a decade but was still news to many. Some people chastised the state, which doesn’t pay taxes, for competing with private business. Some had a feeling the land board been sneaky about it.
“There were a lot of insinuations that we were hiding the ball, and we’re not,” Opp said.
Maybe not, but the agenda entry for the storage purchase was not exactly forthcoming: “Request for Final Approval to Purchase 4.96 Acres of Property Zoned C-2, Including Improvements, in the City of Boise.”
However, Opp and other Department of Lands officials have made clear in reports and testimony in the last couple of years the department’s intention to expand commercial holdings. Various task forces and appointed boards have laid the foundation for further commercial involvement in the last decade. A Department of Lands publication, “How Do We Protect the Future? The Next 100 Years,” tells of the department’s effort to provide for schoolchildren and the need to change parts of the state constitution that stand in the way of the state becoming a multi-corporation mogul.
Several officials have said the land board and lands department by delving into business is fulfilling its constitutional duty to make as much money off state land as possible for beneficiaries, including schools, the University of Idaho, the state school for the deaf and blind, and a state hospital. Adding commercial property helps the state diversify its portfolio and offers the potential for higher returns, they say.
Opp told board members that Tracy could help muster acceptance of state involvement in commercial ventures, like the self-storage business, and for changes to the state constitution that would let the state sell land in closed proceedings rather than at public auction, allow people to buy larger tracts of land, and let the state participate in joint ventures to develop properties. The amendments were proposed last year but died in the Legislature when the timber industry expressed concerns the change could hurt business.
The $85,000 expenditure is itemized in the contract. Following the dollar amount and the name of the service as stated in the contract are Tracy’s explanations of the work.
• Contract fee fee, $48,000 ($4,000 per month)
• Big checks, $2,000 — ”These are the big check presentations that are done by Idaho Land Board members around the state to demonstrate the dollars from the Endowment that go to a particular beneficiary. For instance, a recent presentation in Twin Falls was to the Twin Falls School District and the big check was presented to the Superintendent. It generates news stories and helps educate citizens about the Endowment Lands which has been a thrust of the program.”
• Annual report creative, $8,000 — ”This covers the creative design and other collateral materials that go into producing the Annual Report for the Idaho Land Board.”
• Educational DVD modifications, $10,000, (if necessary) — “For edits to the existing DVD on the Endowment Lands. We have never used this entire budget item.”
• Speakers’ bureau arrangements, $5,000 — “For travel and equipment to make presentations when necessary.”
• ELTAC (Endowment Lands Transaction Advisory Committee) collateral creative, $5,000 — “For creative materials, handouts, etc. for the Endowment Lands Transaction Advisory Committee (ELTAC) when needed.”
• Cottage Site collateral, $4,000 — “Primary print materials and travel.”
• Other State publication collateral creative, $3,000 — “Self explanatory.”
Items outside baseline budget
• Annual report duplication, $6,000
• Video duplication, $5,000
• Publication coordination, other production (such as DVD dubs), travel, $10,000
Tracy said in the coming year he will continue talking with beneficiaries around the state about “what endowment lands are” and about the potential changes to the constitution.
“On the amendments all we are doing is letting people know that about the commission (the ELTAC, made up of local property managers and bankers) brought in by land board and the recommendations to have a change.”
Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told the Spokesman-Review that he thinks Tracy has done a good job.
“I think we’re getting our bang for the bucks.”
Tracy says he works about 30 hours a week on the Department of Lands. His other clients include, Idaho Association of Realtors, Capital Educators Federal Credit Union, Idaho Recreation Council, Community College Yes and Idaho Trust National Bank.
What about those “Idaho owned” plaques?
In an effort to be bold about the state’s ownership of commercial buildings, the state land board decided in November to put bronze plaques on state-owned commercial buildings and businesses declaring the state’s ownership.
One is now slapped on the wall next to the door of Affordable Storage on Maple Grove Road in Boise. The discussion about plaques took up much of what was overall a presentation of Tracy’s new contract for approval by the land board in November. Board members voted in favor of a new $85,000 contract for Tracy following the presentation about plaques. But Tracy, hired to speak for the department and the land board, particularly concerning commercial property, said he knows nothing about the plaques.
On the plaque at Affordable Storage is inscribed: “This property is part of the State of Idaho Endowment Land asset portfolio and is managed by the Idaho State Board of Land Commissioners and the Idaho Department of Lands to generate income for the benefit of endowment trust beneficiaries.”
Asked if he is handling the project, Tracy said no, “unless they (the land board) decided to put it in there. As far as I know it’s separate from this contract.” He said the Department of Lands is dealing with the plaques, but had no further information. Asked how much the plaques will cost, Tracy said, “I have no idea.” He said: “I’m not even involved in that.”
Tracy said the plaques are not part of his PR contract with the state. Department of Lands Deputy Director Opp confirmed that and said the cost of plaques is not included in Tracy’s $85,000 contract, but Tracy did help formulate the language on the plaques.
Opp said the bronze plaques cost about $2,000 each. One is now attached to Affordable Storage, but, despite what was said at the land board meeting in November, Opp said the department has not decided to put plaques on all state-owned properties, including 15 in downtown Boise – the Garro Building and Central Washington Place, among them.
She said the goal of the plaques would be to raise pubic awareness about state endowment lands and how they benefit public education. The message on the plaques will also be inscribed in Braille, because the state school for the blind and deaf is among beneficiaries of state endowment lands, Opp said.