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Top stories for 2022: Heartbreak, NIC and housing

by PRESS STAFF REPORT
| January 1, 2023 1:09 AM

From hundreds of stories published by The Press in 2022, newsroom staff carved out a list of the top 10 issues, challenges and events that Press reporters covered over the past 12 months.

1. Moscow murders

The community continues to mourn the loss of four University of Idaho students who were murdered Nov. 13 in Moscow. Xana Kernodle, 20, of Post Falls, Ethan Chapin, 20, of Conway, Wash., Kaylee Goncalves, 21, of Rathdrum, and Madison Mogen, 21, of Coeur d’Alene, were found stabbed to death in an apartment near campus.

The investigation is still unfolding. On Friday, police arrested a suspect in the killings, Bryan C. Kohberger, 28, in eastern Pennsylvania.

Obituaries for Mogen, Goncalves and Kernodle were among The Press' top digital stories for the year.

2. North Idaho College

Accreditation woes and political division on its board of trustees continued to plague North Idaho College throughout 2022.

Former trustee Michael Barnes resigned from the NIC board in January amid claims that he was a legal resident of North Dakota, not Idaho.

On April 1, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, NIC's accrediting body, placed the school on warning status for being out of compliance with eligibility requirements and standards related to board governance and institutional integrity. NIC was given a year to take steps to regain compliance — including having a five-member board and a permanent president.

Former trustees Ken Howard and Christie Wood resigned May 3, citing numerous problems, specifically with then-Chair Todd Banducci.

The State Board of Education appointed three trustees, shifting the balance of power away from Banducci, who was replaced by a new, temporary chair, David Wold.

A permanent president, Nick Swayne, was hired in August to replace former wrestling coach Michael Sebaaly, whom Banducci and his allies on the board, Greg McKenzie and Barnes, had appointed in the fall of 2021 after they fired former President Rick MacLennan without cause.

The balance of power shifted again following the Nov. 8 election when three new board members were elected, including Michael Waggoner, who forms a voting bloc with Banducci and McKenzie. Tarie Zimmerman and Brad Corkill, who were opposed by candidates supported by McKenzie and Banducci, were also elected.

During a series of meetings in December, McKenzie, Banducci and Waggoner used their majority voting power to place President Nick Swayne on administrative leave for no disciplinary reason, and they hired an interim president whose negotiated compensation is higher than Swayne's.

The college's accrediting agency dinged NIC again in a letter the college received Dec. 17 that said, "While NIC has submitted monitoring reports as required since that time, hired a new president, and has a fully constituted Board with five Trustees, recent and subsequent public actions of the NIC Board of Trustees appear to place the institution at significant risk of being out of compliance."

The board must respond to the letter by Wednesday and show how the college is not out of compliance with a list of accreditation eligibility requirements and standards related to operational focus and independence; institutional integrity; the governing board; the chief executive officer, which in NIC's case is the president; the administration; and the college's relationship with NWCCU.

3. Housing market and growth

In March, home prices were high, and so were rents. Demand for homes was very high and inventory was very low. Newcomers were streaming in as housing affordable for the workforce disappeared. Locals were being priced out, forced to leave the area.

The Coeur d'Alene Regional Realtors reported the median home price in Kootenai County in March was $535,000, a 21% increase from March 2021.

Not much has changed over the past year.

According to the Coeur d'Alene Regional Realtors, the median single-family home price in the county was $550,000 in October, up 15.8% from the same month in 2021.

But new groups like the Regional Housing and Growth Issues Partnership are gaining momentum in their work to find solutions to the challenges wrought by growth and the high cost of housing in Kootenai County.

4. Kootenai County assessor

The county assessor’s office is usually not the long-term focal point of news, but under Béla Kovacs, happenings involving the office made front page news for months over the past year.

Despite staff publicly pleading for voters not to elect Kovacs, who was appointed to the position in May 2020 after the death of late assessor Rich Houser, Kovacs won the Republican nomination in the May primary. Then the embattled assessor went on to win the November election, with write-in candidate Bob Scott garnering 25% of the votes.

Kovacs’ victory at the polls came after property valuations dramatically increased under his watch, followed by hundreds of appeals. Then, after his office missed deadlines for providing tax roll info to the county clerk’s office, his pay was slashed by 50% by the commissioners, and he subsequently filed a lawsuit against the county to restore his pay, a case now going through the court system.

5. Patriot Front members arrested during Pride in the Park

Coeur d'Alene made national news when members of the white nationalist hate group Patriot Front were arrested June 11 after police were tipped off by a concerned citizen who reported seeing a “little army” with metal shields and other gear piling into the back of a U-Haul truck. The arrest was made just up the street from Coeur d'Alene City Park, where the annual LGBTQ celebration, Pride in the Park, was taking place. Local law enforcement, which had a heavy presence throughout town that day, was applauded for maintaining the peace and derailing the would-be rioters' plans.

6. Kootenai County Republican Central Committee members unsuccessfully plot to infiltrate and dismantle the Kootenai Democrats

A failed plan by the KCRCC to infiltrate the Kootenai Democrats, install one of their own as party chair and spend donations on conservative causes only gave more encouragement to local Democrats. GOP leadership denied the plot’s existence, even as a local conservative criticized for antisemitic writings ran for a Democratic position. The Press published a recorded phone call between Kootenai County resident John Grimm and a person he identified as KCRCC Youth Chair Dan Bell.

Grimm, who ran unsuccessfully for Kootenai County Sheriff in 2020, said he believed the KCRCC approached him because he’s known as a staunch, conservative Republican. But he refused to be part of “any conspiracy to steal money” and was not silent about the KCRCC’s alleged plans.

“They have become what they profess to hate: liars, cheaters, thieves and worse — establishment Republicans,” Grimm said.

7. Kootenai Health to become a nonprofit

Kootenai Health's board of trustees in mid-December approved moving forward with a transition from the district hospital structure to a nonprofit status. The vote was 6-1, with Trustee Steve Matheson casting the sole dissenting vote.

Board Chair Katie Brodie said the new structure will give Kootenai Health the advantages of a modern, contemporary organizational structure.

“I am pleased with the outcome of today’s vote,” she said in a press release. “This board has engaged in a thorough evaluation of the benefits and challenges of converting to a 501(c)(3). We were well prepared to make this decision."

CEO Jon Ness said Kootenai Health is one of only 22 district hospitals of a similar size left in the United States.

The nonprofit model will put it on an even playing field with other hospitals of its size and scope, Ness said, adding that the decision positions the hospital well for continuing to meet North Idaho's health care needs.

8. Labor shortage

Just as homeseekers have been desperately trying to find places to live, businesses have been desperately seeking workers. Every industry has been affected by a drying up of the worker pool, from food service and hospitality to construction, health care and education — as evidenced by the countless "Help wanted" signs in windows and on reader boards. To make matters worse, Kootenai County has been experiencing a historically low unemployment rate, hovering around 3%. Generational shifts in the workforce and North Idaho's demographics have also contributed to the labor shortage.

9. ARPA funds

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 went into effect in March 2021 to distribute economic stimulus dollars across the United States in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kootenai County was allocated a $32 million share of federal funds through ARPA, to be used for the direct or indirect response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

How, or if, those funds would be used created controversy across the county in 2022. Some city councils accepted the federal funds while others rejected them. Many North Idaho residents expressed concerns about the loss of civil rights and freedoms accompanied by fears of socialism, tyranny, communism and worries of federal overreach and government mandates.

Use of the $32 million is available through Dec. 31, 2026.

10. Hayden law enforcement levy

A ballot measure to cover the expenses of increased police presence in Hayden highlighted the strain that maintaining law and order in the city was placing on the county, which, by contract, provides law enforcement coverage.

The law enforcement levy passed with 63.62% of the vote.

“The residents of Hayden recognized the need for greater public safety in their city,” Kootenai County Sheriff Robert Norris said after the measure passed. “I am pleased to have the community's support as we continue to provide safety and keep the peace.”

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CHANSE WATSON/Press File

Kootenai County Sheriff's Office personnel in riot gear guard Coeur d'Alene Police officers who arrested the individuals seen kneeling with their hands cuffed behind their backs June 11 in Coeur d'Alene. Those arrested are associated with the Patriot Front, a white nationalist, fascist organization.

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DEVIN WEEKS/Press File

Former North Idaho College attorney Marc Lyons, center, gestures as he discusses forgone taxes during a board of trustees meeting May 25.