EDITORIAL: First, make most of what you've got
Kootenai County Commissioner Bill Brooks plans to drop a big ol’ “no” bomb on the budget.
When he and fellow commissioners Chris Fillios and Leslie Duncan huddle in late August to adopt the FY ‘23 budget, Brooks says he’s going to vote “no.” And he’s pretty sure he’ll be the lone naysayer.
“I’m out-voted but that’s the only responsible thing to do,” he told The Press.
The cause for Brooks’ fiscal fit is a roughly $22 million chunk of federal funding to expand the county’s downtown justice building footprint. The expansion is expected to add three courtrooms, a secure detention area, and office space for the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office, district court employees, prosecutors and other county staff.
Brooks has no problem with the county accepting and spending some $32 million from Uncle Sam’s treasure chest, otherwise known as American Rescue Plan Act funds — ARPA, if you prefer the four-letter word. Bill’s beef is with the justice building commitment, which he believes will end up costing closer to $30 million, and all at the expense of other projects he thinks are more needed.
Kootenai County received a slew of funding requests that added up to almost $100 million, but the justice expansion is earmarked for the lion’s share of available funds. Brooks is a strong advocate of law and order, including the judicial branch. But what the county has in mind doesn’t justify the cost, he says.
If it can be done — and Brooks has been told it can — expanding the Kootenai County jail’s capacity by completing two existing shells should be a higher priority. He also can’t discount a suggestion made by a county resident to simply make better, fuller use of the justice facilities as they are.
Anybody remember the TV show “Night Court?” While Kootenai County judges now share courtrooms, the suggestion has been floated to hold night court to keep up with the rising number of cases fueled by the growing population and exacerbated by a massive backlog due to COVID-19. Why build new courtrooms if the current ones aren't in use two-thirds of the time?
While judges and support staff likely cringe at the night court suggestion, there’s merit in considering it in the context of a bigger picture. Most of Kootenai County's taxing entities are crafting their FY ‘23 budgets now. A guiding light should be, “Before we spend more money on capital projects, are we making the best and fullest use of what we’ve got now?”
The answers could reap taxpayer dividends.