By RALPH BARTHOLDT
COEUR d’ALENE — Providing pay increases for law enforcement, adding workspace at the county’s downtown campus, building infrastructure and improving services for Kootenai County’s increasing population were among targets commissioners zeroed in on at Tuesday’s state of the county address.
With an annual budget of $94 million, commissioners said their main priority is to be fiscally responsible while improving services and infrastructure to help manage the county’s growth.
The annual address — commissioners skipped the event last year — was given at the Best Western Plus Coeur d’Alene Inn. It was sponsored by the Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls chambers of commerce. The event drew a packed house and served to introduce the county’s latest commissioners, Bill Brooks and Leslie Duncan, while discussing accomplishments and priorities.
One of the county’s biggest challenges, Commissioner Chris Fillios said, is a rapidly growing population of mostly seniors older than 60. With its 158,000 people, Kootenai County is the fifth fastest growing county in the nation, Fillios said, and it’s expected to hit 240,000 by 2040.
“We certainly cannot stop the growth, so we have to manage it,” Fillios said.
One way is to finalize a strategic plan, something the county has been working on, but the nature of local government to frequently elect new commissioners on a seeming rotisserie has hindered a plan from being developed.
“Without continuity, it’s difficult to move forward,” he said.
One of the county’s priorities has been to maintain its fund balance — which has around $14 million available — to pay for projects without having to raise taxes.
A flush fund balance will allow the county to expand its campus by building two additional structures to house county and state employees, including judges, and add a courtroom to handle the county’s increased caseload. Preliminary costs will likely be around $6 million to $8 million, but it won’t require a bond levy.
“We try to keep a low tax rate,” Fillios said.
During Fillios’s tenure, taxes have twice been increased by 1.5 percent — half of the 3 percent allowed. And forgone taxes, unused taxing authority from previous years, have not been tapped.
In addition, the county completed a 127-bed addition to the jail, with a 108-bed shell waiting for a future expansion. The $12.5 million cost was paid from the fund balance and the expansion was completed not just on time, but $1 million under budget, Fillios said.
Leslie Duncan, one of the commission’s new faces, echoed Fillios’s sentiment for the need for additional county office space. The county added 40 positions over the past two years, topping out at 830 employees, Duncan said.
Kootenai County’s growing population is not without its consequences. A higher rate of parolees and probationers is among them, said Duncan, who worked in law enforcement for more than a decade. In just a year, the number of people assigned to adult misdemeanor probation increased from 878 to 1,015 and the number is expected to increase another 15 percent, Duncan said.
“Justice services is growing faster than our population,” she said.
The county plans to hire one additional probation officer this year.
Recreation, including boating and snowmobiling, continues to be one of the amenities drawing people to Kootenai County, Duncan said.
Last year the county collected $99,000 in boat launch fees, and the number is expected to jump by 20 percent this year. Boating — 56 percent of boaters are from outside Kootenai County — adds about $15 million in nonresident spending to the local economy, Duncan said.
On the winter front, snowmobiling adds about $11.7 million to the local economy, she said. The county keeps 300 miles of trails groomed, and last year logged more than 2,000 trail users.
In addition to his responsibilities, Bill Brooks, also new to the board, is a liaison to law enforcement. One of his priorities is to provide pay increases for county law enforcement.
“Saying ‘thank you for your service’ isn’t good enough anymore,” Brooks said.
The county continues to lose officers to other departments that offer better pay and benefits, he said.
In an effort to increase transparency, the board of commissioners plans to tape its meetings, so residents can watch commissioners in action. The service, which starts in the next few weeks, is one the city of Coeur d’Alene has offered for several years.
“So we’ll keep our hands in our laps and sit up straight,” Brooks said.
In addition to making the board more accessible and its actions transparent, Brooks favors hiring a county chief executive.
“With our budget approaching $100 million, we’re too big to practice pickle-barrel politics,” Brooks said.
His office number transfers calls to his cellphone, he said.
“It rings in my pocket,” Brooks said. “So I am available 24/7.”