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Kuna: Southwest Idaho 'farm town' among fastest growing in nation

Kuna's population is more than four times what it was 20 years ago. Mayor Joe Stear talks about what the city is doing to keep up.

KUNA, Idaho — A Treasure Valley town with roots in farming is now one of the fastest-growing cities of its size in the country. That doesn't narrow it down, but it's Kuna. I talked to Kuna's mayor about how the city is handling this incredible growth and the typical, but also unique, challenges they're facing.

"When my family moved here in the ‘60s, the main street was the only street in town that was paved," Mayor Joe Stear said.

Back then, when Stear was just a kid, the population of Kuna was around 550.

"In the ‘70s, they build a couple of smaller subdivisions. And I just remember the people talking about how that was just going to ruin everything," he said.

It depends on how you define "ruin," but Kuna has continued to grow at a very quick pace. Kuna's population has grown from 6,436 people in 2000 to an estimated 26,673 people in 2021. That's a population explosion of 314.4 percent! That growth rate is also faster than 97% of similar-sized U.S. cities. Mayor Stear said they've had to work hard to keep their services up to date but, he added, "as a city, we've been able to keep up pretty well."

To that point, the Kuna Rural Fire District was able to get a bond passed to build a second station and increase the levy rate to hire more staff. But as with most local towns, Stear said they're still playing catch-up.

“They've been behind for a while. But that's kind of the way it is," he said.

It's certainly the way it is with the Kuna School District. According to Stear, schools are “looking at bursting at the seams, and their bond didn't pass here this last time."

And while Mayor Stear cannot just hand the schools a ton of money, he can support them. One of the ways the city is doing that is by requiring developers to make all their new water and sewer lines for any development oversized, in anticipation of future schools. Also, the city allows developers to make property donations to the school district in lieu of green space and parks.

"So what we do is we try to make sure that as development occurs that the property that the school has is viable," Stear said.

He also said the Idaho Legislature could help by allowing the school district to collect impact fees from new developments. He said that would put some of that financial burden on the people moving in and take some off the people already living here.

"I think those bonds would pass much easier that way,” Stear said. “It certainly wouldn't ever take away the need for bonding. But if you can bond for half as much, because you got a bank account with some money sitting in it, that's all a lot better deal for everybody."

And it wouldn't be a Growing Idaho story if we didn't talk about traffic. It can be a four-lane parking lot on Kuna's morning commute. ACHD manages the roads. But Stear is also the chair of Valley Regional Transit, which runs the buses in the area. Much more public transportation in town could really cut down on the traffic, but, he said, it's just not practical right now because of how spread-out Kuna is.

"We could put bus stops all over the place, but man, it would take forever to pick people up if you had that many bus stops,” Stear said. "I think it's going to be quite a while before we actually have a bus line service that would take you from Kuna to Meridian to Boise to Nampa to Caldwell, that type of thing."

They can reduce traffic by continuing to provide jobs in and around town. Kuna has big employers, like the meat-packing plant, the prison, and the incoming Meta data center, but they need more.

Stear said about 90% of Kuna’s property tax base comes from residential instead of commercial, with home values spiking at a much quicker pace than commercial property values.

"So, we need that commercial tax base to kind of help take some of the property tax burden off of the people that live here," Stear said.

Mayor Stear also said he understands why people don't like the incredible growth, but it's impossible to stop. And, again, growth has been happening since the 70's there when the very first subdivisions went in.

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