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County officials look ahead

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | April 8, 2022 1:07 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — Commissioners reflected on the year that was and looked ahead to the county’s future during the Coeur d’Alene Regional Chamber of Commerce 2022 State of the County discussion.

Roughly 140 people attended the breakfast on Tuesday at the Best Western plus Coeur d'Alene Inn.

Amid continuing growth in Kootenai County, Commissioner Chris Fillios noted how recent legislation has limited the ability of cities and counties to generate the recurring revenue they need to operate.

He pointed to House Bill 389, a sweeping property tax reform bill that passed last year. The bill capped local government budget growth at 8% annually.

In order to attract and retain qualified employees, Fillios said, the county needs to raise wages. But that money can’t come from the county’s savings.

“Wages have to be paid from recurring revenue,” he said. “Otherwise, we drive the county into insolvency.”

That means just one thing.

“Get ready for impact fees,” Fillios said.

Commissioner Leslie Duncan spoke of the continuing strain on justice related services amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

With jury trials resuming, prosecutors, public defenders and court staff are all contending with major backlogs. To top it off, the county has more judges than courtrooms, making it a challenge to schedule hearings and trials.

“But our team has stepped up and we’re going to get through this,” Duncan said.

On the horizon this year are possible changes to Kootenai County’s administrative structure.

The Optional Forms of Government Study Commission voted 5-4 in support of increasing the size of the BOCC from three to five members, as well as switching to the commission manager form of government.

Under that form, the commission manager handles administrative work that otherwise falls to commissioners and serves as chief budget officer, a role currently filled by the county clerk.

The study commission also recommends that the county clerk, treasurer, assessor, sheriff, coroner and prosecuting attorney remain elected positions, rather than hired.

All recommendations are allowed under Idaho Code 31-5001.

Commissioners must now decide whether to place changes to the county’s administrative structure in the hands of voters.

Fillios and Brooks have said they want to put the matter on the November ballot.

Duncan said Tuesday she doesn’t support giving Kootenai County voters the final say.

“I am utterly convinced that no optional form is going to give people the best representation, the best opportunity at having input in their government,” she said Tuesday. “If I thought that there was a better way to represent the people … I would absolutely be in favor of it.”

Duncan and Fillios are both seeking re-election this year.

Fillios will face a challenger in the Republican primary election, while Duncan is running unopposed on the Republican ticket.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Bill Brooks said Tuesday his decision not to run for re-election when his term ends in 2024 has been a liberating one.

“It’s amazingly free, not to worry at all about elections, but rather about what’s right and wrong,” he said. “My world is Kootenai County. I can see what’s happening around the world and around the nation. But my focus is right here.”

As liaison to the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office, Brooks said he’s honed in on the challenges faced by law enforcement — namely attracting and retaining employees in a rapidly-growing county.

Brooks said he believes KCSO needs more funding.

“When you start seeing things fall apart, you’re not funding it adequately,” he said.

He’s previously advocated for increasing pay for KCSO staff by $5 across the board.

If commissioners raise property taxes by 3% — the maximum allowed per fiscal year under Idaho law — the county could see as much as $1.5 million in increased revenue.

That would cover raises for KCSO employees, but it wouldn’t account for associated expenses like benefits and more patrol cars for new deputies.

It would also leave nothing for other county employees, who are reportedly leaving the county at a higher rate than KCSO staff.

Duncan and Fillios have both said the problem isn’t one that can be solved by simply throwing money at it. Many factors contribute to staffing challenges at the jail, from housing costs in Kootenai County to the high-stress nature of the job.

Fillios said Tuesday the county needs sources of recurring revenue in order to increase the budget for the sheriff’s office. He said KCSO should examine alternate sources of funding, such as grants and levies.

“I really believe that the sheriff needs his own levy,” Fillios said. “He needs the ability to go directly to the taxpayers and say, ‘This is what I need.’”

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Duncan

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Chris Fillios