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Kootenai County Commissioners pass budget but hold off on CARES Act dollars

Staff Writer | August 27, 2020 1:00 AM

After a public hearing Wednesday night, the Kootenai County commissioners adopted their $98.9 million the fiscal year 2020-21 budget in a 2-1 vote.

Despite an average annual county growth rate of 2.5%, the budget decreased by over $2 million since the $101.6 million in the fiscal year 2019-20. Much of the drop is contributed by the county's choice not to take a 3% increase in property taxes but instead only add new growth income.

The $1.49 million generated by the untaken 3% was approved by the commissioner to be allocated into the county's forgone balance. With the 2020-21 budget addition, the current forgone taxing balance for the county is $10.6 million. The forgone balance acts as a symbolic savings account that can be used to aid capital centuries and potential county needs.

"It's a virtual bank account. We didn't take the 3%, so it goes into a virtual bank account, it's not real money or money that we are writing a check for," Commissioner Chris Fillios said. "It's money we could have taxed for that we chose not to but that we can tap into if we need to in the future."

According to information provided by Kootenai County finance director Dena Darrow, the majority of county entities decreased or maintained their expenses, dropping overall operating costs for the county by 8%.

"People were very cooperative. The employees, the elected officials, the division officials were all very cooperative this year," Commissioner Bill Brooks said. "We knew this was an austerity year, and we knew we needed to cut everything we can."

The county is also looking at an almost 55% reduction in new capital expenditure, cutting last year's $10.8 million to $4.8 million.

Kootenai County is estimated to collect $557.8 million in new construction. In combination with the levy rate, new growth will supplement the 2020-21 budget by almost $1.4 million.

A surprise to no county resident, Kootenai's market value increased by over $2 billion, ringing in at an estimated $22.5 billion, according to Darrow.

Due to a substantial amount of untaken forgone dollars through the year, a wage study performed by the county in 2019 determined employees were being paid almost 20% below the market of other Idaho municipal governments. After giving out partial increases last year, the county budgeted $110,602 in 2021 to implement the wage study fully.

In a 2-1 vote with Commissioner Leslie Duncan opposed, officials added three levels of cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for elected officials, sworn officials, general payment plan employers, and solid waste management workers.

"We've made a commitment to try and take these employees up to the market, and when I say market, I mean compared to other public agencies," Fillios said. "We aren't even there yet. We are in some cases but not in others."

Elected officials will receive a 2% COLA increase, increasing county commissioners' salaries from $75,044 to $76,544. Sworn officials are budgeted for a 1.8% gain, bumping a seasoned patrol officer from $74,464 to $75,804. General pay plan employees like certified emergency communications operators' yearly incomes could increase from $55,850 to $56,967.

"I know there are other people in the county who have lost their jobs and businesses permanently. People who will never get their savings back this year," Duncan said. "I didn't feel like it was right for county employees who haven't seen any furloughed jobs or lost work hours to take a pay raise, I think that is wrong."

The commissioners chose to postpone their decision on whether to accept the possible $10 million in CARES Act funding for Gov. Brad Little's Property Tax Relief Program due to a lack of U.S. Treasury confirmation.

The program, announced in early June, would use $200 million of Idaho's $1.25 billion cut of the CARES Act to help repay the payroll of public safety and public health employees such as firefighters, law enforcement, and EMTs. Gov. Little's program would lower property tax costs while cutting property tax value to provide relief to taxpayers.

However, the U.S. Treasury has specifically expressed through its frequently asked questions document that CARES Act funding "may not be used for government revenue replacement, including the provision of assistance to meet tax obligations."

Not only could this potentially cause Kootenai County to be federally audited for the misused $10 million, Darrow said, but it could affect housing mortgage payments.

While Gov. Little has assured Idahoans that the White House has positively reinforced the property tax relief program, there has been no written confirmation.

Without the certainty of the possible repercussions of misuse of CARES dollars, the commissioners chose to delay their decision until they can hold conversations with both the governor and taxpayers.

"I wish that we would have had a lot more taxpayer input, and I'm still asking for that," Duncan said. "I want to know if people want the property tax relief so badly that they are willing to accept the risk. That's not a decision I can make for the taxpayers; they have to understand the risk."

At this time Duncan is planning to reach out to Gov. Little to address the deadline on accepting CARES Act funding. Commissioners ask Kootenai County residents to reach out with their opinion on the property tax relief program before a decision.