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Madison County mayors express very different views of the future

A crowd of almost 150 people attended the State of the Cities and County event at Brigham Young University-Idaho on Tuesday. | Mary Boyle,
REXBURG — Rexburg and Sugar City are neighbors, but their mayors’ perspectives are very different. Rexburg’s Mayor Jerry Merrill and Sugar City’s Mayor Steven Adams shared their visions of the future at the State of the Cities and County event at Brigham Young University-Idaho on Tuesday.
Growth and revitalization
Rexburg is growing — or “growing up,” as Merrill put it.
“We’re knocking on the door of well over 40,000 (people),” he noted. Though the population has certainly increased in the past several years, he said the ratio of permanent residents to students from BYU-Idaho has remained about 50/50 for several decades. Rexburg, he said, loves being a college town.

Rexburg City Mayor Jerry Merrill | Mary Boyle,
Merrill touted Rexburg’s ability to land federal grants to help with projects. He said that money allows the city and county to add to and improve the area without taking money from local taxes.
“Now, obviously, it does come out of your taxes because you pay federal taxes; a lot of these are federal grants. But I like to say this is our staff fighting for our share of your taxes,” he said lightheartedly.
Federal funds are helping Rexburg and Madison County bring high-speed fiber internet to residents’ homes. Work has already begun on the county-wide initiative, which is scheduled to be completed in 2026.
RELATED | Madison County receives ‘game-changer’ grant for high-speed fiber internet
“Over the next three years, every homeowner will have the opportunity to connect to the other side of the network if they so desire,” Merrill told the crowd.
Another grant allows the city to begin work on two new parks, one on the old dairy property just north of town. The project’s first phase will begin this year; however, there will be several phases before it is complete.
“And that will be in several phases … That’s phase one on the south end. And then we’ll have phase two and three and how many phases we’ll have to bring that into to get it done,” Merrill said.
Yet more federal money will go toward a “big” redevelopment project in downtown Rexburg, which will be moving forward over the next two years. Merrill said city leaders are still getting ideas from several companies about the project.
And although the funding for one final project has yet to be finalized, it is no less ambitious. The restoration of the Rexburg Tabernacle, Merrill said, is important to the community and the arts. It will be a costly undertaking; an estimate for restoring the mortar work on the outside walls was $800,000.
Should the city raise enough money, the west wing of the building will be replaced to add more office space, and the façade will receive a much-needed facelift.
The county has also received approval for a new airfield. The runway at the Rexburg Airport is too short for some private jets, Merrill noted, so the airport will be relocated to the west of town. However, that is some years off.
Personal rights
As optimistic as Merrill’s speech was, Adams’ was blunt and candid. Adams used his time to speak about defending individual rights.
“I have always believed that government, at every level, the major responsibilities are to protect individual freedom and provide the necessary services,” he said.
Sugar City is doing well on the latter, Adams said. The city is financially secure. It hasn’t raised taxes for years and continues to bring in tax revenue from new construction.
That is where the good news ended.
“I feel like when I get invited to these meetings … I’m being invited to a friend’s house to talk about his health. When I arrive, I find out he’s dying of cancer. And I’m supposed to give him a happy message of joy and peace, I guess.”
That wasn’t what Adams was there to deliver.
“When I was young, I was counseled to always tell the truth and to not be afraid to say what I believe. I apologize if this isn’t what you wanted to hear.”
Comparing freedom to a patient dying on a table, he said it would “pass soon” if something isn’t done.
Local government, he said, isn’t doing enough to protect citizens’ freedoms.
Planning and zoning rules on a local level need to respect residents’ private property rights. He said that if they “try and get around them” on a local level, the state is quick to enforce the rules.
Additionally, state and federal governments are taxing too much. Property taxes, sales tax and income taxes (on both state and national levels) are a “violation of rights almost to the point of slavery,” he claimed
Education and healthcare are also in critical condition, Adams said.
“We took — historically — the worst possible option of all the options of education in this country and adopted it as our uniform system and ensured that the government was in charge of it,” he lamented.
The success of the educational system in Sugar City is due only to the dedication of the teachers and administrators overseeing it on a day-to-day basis, he said, calling them “amazing people who work in the crappiest possible system.”
As for healthcare, Idaho “jumped in with both feet” when it came to “socialized healthcare” and having the government dictate medical services citizens can have, who can provide them, and how much it costs.
“You cannot live free in this society anymore, folks. If our freedom is a patient, it’s almost dead.”
‘Madison County has been discovered’
Madison County Commissioner Todd Smith also spoke briefly.
“Madison County has been discovered,” Smith said. It’s growth in population and infrastructure are proof of that.
Smith updated the audience on bringing the solid waste management in-county.
He noted that Madison currently sends about a million tons of waste to Jefferson County. However, a site has been chosen east of Newdale for a landfill, which will allow the county to save money over the long run.
BYU-Idaho looks to boost enrollment
Growth was also on BYU-Idaho President Alvin F. Meredith III’s mind. He delivered an update on enrollment at the university.
Enrollment has been falling since 2020, he said. BYU-Idaho had just over 23,000 students attending classes at the Rexburg campus during the fall 2023 semester.
That’s only 75 percent of its total capacity, Meredith said, so school officials will be stepping up recruitment efforts.
Diverging diamond interchanges
The long-anticipated diamond interchanges will be put in at the south and Main Street exits this summer. This project will close Highway 20 exits 332 and 333 this summer, though not simultaneously.
RELATED | ITD seeking public input on proposed changes to US-20 exits 332, 333
Curtis Calderwood from the Idaho Transportation Department spent some time going over the much-anticipated project. While it would snarl traffic over the summer, they said, motorists would be safer in the long run.
“The (diamond) configuration … does reduce the severity of accidents that could happen,” Calderwood said.
The project will also allow for better pedestrian safety, with sidewalks built into the project. Also, the new lights at the exits will have “plenty” of crosswalks.

Representatives from the Idaho Transportation Department | Mary Boyle,
“Highways can be very difficult barriers to cross,” he said. “We understand that, so we kind of accommodate that the best we can.”
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