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Sheriff seeks $4.8M budget increase

by MADISON HARDY
Staff Writer | May 12, 2021 1:09 AM

COEUR d'ALENE — Kootenai County Sheriff Office employees say their department is antiquated, with staff that is underpaid, and ill-equipped for the region's growth.

"Commissioners, welcome to the hottest real estate market in the United States and likely one of the fastest-growing communities in the United States," KCSO Sheriff Bob Norris said in his opening statement Monday. "I come to you today to partner with you on the needs of our county."

Norris' fix? Increasing department expenses by approximately $4.8 million for the 2022 fiscal year.

The $4.8 million increase would include:

• $2.6 million in new positions and cost of living wage adjustments

• $217,000 in software and safety equipment

• $630,000 in leases, facilities, and equipment

• $378,000 for four vehicles

• $969,000 in operating expenses

Painting a picture for the commissioners, Norris pointed to the struggles of the Canyon County Sheriff's Office to manage a growing population. Norris said the situation in Canyon County resulted in a consent decree that required the county to assist the jail when at 80% capacity.

As of Monday, there were 406 inmates at the Kootenai County Jail, Norris said. Maximum capacity is 451.

"We're at 90% of our capacity right now," he said. "That should serve as a warning signal that we have some issues on the horizon. I predict by summer's end, we will be at 451."

To avoid a consent decree in Kootenai County, Norris and other KCSO department heads called attention to a long list of needs, including:

• Several new hires

• Sign-on incentives

• Pay increases in almost every department

• Equipment updates and restocks

• Medical costs for jail occupants

• Maintenance

• General operation improvements

Significant contributors to the budget increase, department speakers stressed, are Kootenai County's rapid growth, the housing market, and lack of competitive pay.

Hiring jail staff is incredibly challenging, KCSO Undersheriff Dan Mattos said, and retaining employees is no easier.

"We don't have the people, we can't hire the people because we can't pay, and we don't keep the people because we can't pay them," he said. "I'm not saying that the answer to everything is throwing money at it, but we're in a unique position."

To assist in enlisting employees, KCSO is asking for several thousand promotional dollars for recruiting bonuses and job fair registrations. Capt. Stu Miller said in the meeting that KCSO is considering offering a $1,500 hiring bonus — a small price to pay, he noted, compared to Spokane's current recruiting offer of $15,000.

"Having fully trained people that are functional and ready to go is starting to become more and more difficult," Mattos said. "Even laterals that at one time wanted to come here from other places are backing away because they can't afford the house. I won't belabor the point, but we're in critical mass in our dispatch area."

Initially, the commissioners asked all departments to present flat, no-frills budgets, Commissioner Bill Brooks said Tuesday. Despite any rationale given by KCSO officials, Brooks said the budget increase request won't fly.

"Bottom line is they (cut) it, or we'll do it," Brooks said. "We can't just pretend we have all the money in the world … I would prefer not to cut it because these department heads know whether they can honestly cut something, but the department heads and sheriff are not willing to take a scalpel to (the budget)."

Norris encouraged the commissioners to consider that the "gains far outweigh the investments" throughout the budget process.

"I'm always hopeful that the present board will have the vision to prepare this county for growth, but we have some significant issues facing public safety here in Kootenai County on the horizon," Norris said.

Department heads like Norris, the commissioners and county financial staff will trim budgets before final numbers are approved in August.