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Sheriff criticizes Justice Building expansion

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | June 4, 2022 1:09 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris said he wants county commissioners to spend federal funds to expand the jail, rather than for the Justice Building located on the county's main campus in Coeur d'Alene.

But federal guidelines state the funds can’t be used that way.

Kootenai County has been allocated a $32 million share of federal funds through the American Rescue Plan Act, which is significantly less than the $99 million sum of requests county agencies, including the sheriff’s office, have made for the money.

Per federal guidelines, ARPA dollars are to be used for the direct or indirect response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

In April, the county’s ARPA task force presented to the Board of County Commissioners its final recommendations on how to spend the funds.

The task force developed an evaluation plan to define the process used to make recommendations, then scored eligible projects based on that metric.

Of 44 projects deemed eligible for ARPA funding, 13 were recommended to receive full or partial funding, including $22 million to the Board of County Commissioners for an addition to the Justice Building.

Read the task force's full report, with the complete list of recommended projects, at www.kcgov.us/997/American-Rescue-Plan-Act.

The task force recommended the county spend a little more than $27 million of the available $32 million, setting the rest aside for future waves of COVID-19 or additional requests.

Though commissioners voted last July to accept the ARPA funds, they have not yet decided whether they will spend it.

The commissioners expect to meet in mid-June to vote on how — or if — to spend the ARPA money. The meeting will be announced in advance.

Commissioners Chris Fillios and Leslie Duncan have indicated they will likely vote to approve the task force’s recommendations.

“The task force has done a good job of looking at it legally,” Fillios said Friday. “I think we’re going to be in good shape. It will help the budget overall.”

The ARPA money will pay for some items that would otherwise come out of the county’s fund balance, Fillios said.

Commissioner Bill Brooks, meanwhile, objects to spending $22 million to expand the Justice Building.

The expansion would add three courtrooms, as well as a secure detention area and office space for the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office, district court employees, prosecutors and other county staff.

In its report, the ARPA task force said the additional facilities will enable the court to fully address the case backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Norris said he believes the funds would be better spent on law enforcement.

“I believe that putting a $24 million remodel in the most congested area of Kootenai County is not in the best interest of the taxpayer,” Norris said.

The Justice Building expansion would receive $22 million of ARPA funding, if the commissioners approve.

KCSO reportedly requested a little more than $21 million in ARPA funds to be used for several projects, including completing two unfinished pods at the jail.

The jail expansion project, which would add more than 100 bunks to the overcrowded facility, received the second highest evaluation score.

But rules set by the U.S. Treasury specifically prohibit using ARPA funds to expand jail capacity in response to an increased crime rate or a need for physical distancing.

The task force determined the jail project poses a “significant risk” of being disallowed by the U.S. Treasury.

Norris said he doesn’t believe the proposed jail expansion violates any rules, adding that “many” Idaho counties have committed ARPA funds to building or expanding jails. He cited Bonneville County as an example.

The Idaho County Free Press reported in April that Idaho County commissioners approved a proposal to use $7.5 million in ARPA funds to build a new facility that includes 50 beds for inmates.

The Press was unable to confirm that any other Idaho counties, including Bonneville County, plan to use ARPA funds to build or expand their jails.

Kootenai County's ARPA task force also cited corresponding staffing increases, which were deemed unfeasible, as a reason for denying the jail expansion request.

Norris has repeatedly called on commissioners to increase his office's funding so the agency can increase wages in order to attract and retain staff.

He said he supports using the one-time federal dollars to fund wage increases for law enforcement.

“We need to stop the hemorrhaging,” Norris said. “We need to put a Band-Aid on this, and if that’s using ARPA funds for premium pay, then that’s what we need to do.”

The Idaho Legislative Services Office’s ARPA review, which was updated in January, states that funds may be used for payroll and covered benefits expenses for public safety “to the extent that the employee’s time that is dedicated to responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

When the ARPA funds are spent, however, it’s unclear how the sheriff's office could maintain the higher wages.

Fillios has previously emphasized that increased funding must come from a recurring source, such as a levy, and not from the county’s savings.

County leaders are considering whether to let the sheriff's office ask voters for additional funding in the form of a permanent override levy, which could appear on the ballot in November.

Though Norris initially said he was open to the idea of a levy, he said Friday he believes now is the wrong time.

“I don’t believe that saddling the property owner for additional taxes at this time is in the best interest of the taxpayer,” he said.

Norris acknowledged that long-term funding solutions have to happen at the legislative level — potentially in the form of changes to property taxes or sales tax — not the county level.

“We need to have a conversation with our state leaders,” he said. “Part of that conversation is property taxes. Part of it is sales tax."

Wherever the funding comes from, Norris said, completing the unfinished jail expansion is critical.

“(The jail) doesn’t meet the growing needs of this county,” he said.

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Fillios

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Duncan

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Brooks