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Kootenai County commissioners ordered to restore assessor’s pay

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | May 10, 2023 5:05 PM

COEUR d’ALENE — A judge has ordered the Kootenai County Board of Commissioners to restore Assessor Bèla Kovacs’ salary, which the board cut in half last year after Kovacs missed statutory deadlines and failed to perform some of his duties.

In a written decision filed Wednseday, District Judge Susie Jensen instructed commissioners to reinstate Kovacs’ pay retroactive to Sept. 25, 2022 with the 6% cost of living increase that all county employees except Kovacs had received for fiscal year 2023. That brings his annual salary to $95,811.24.

Commissioners Bill Brooks, Leslie Duncan and Chris Fillios voted for the pay cut last August as part of the budget process, reducing Kovacs’ pay from about $90,000 to $45,000 per year.

They cited “grave concerns” brought to them about Kovacs’ performance by county employees and other elected officials, as well as missed statutory deadlines and other failures to fulfill his responsibilities. At the time, Fillios — who is no longer on the board — said the commissioners had discussed the issues with Kovacs, to no avail.

Kovacs filed a lawsuit against the county in October 2022, asking the court to restore his pay. He placed blame on the county commissioners and county IT department for deadlines missed by his office last year, which temporarily left Kootenai County taxing districts unable to finalize their budgets.

Jensen determined that commissioners have the constitutional and statutory authority to fix a county officer’s salary, as well as to increase or reduce pay. Salaries for county officers should be based on “reasonable compensation for the services to be performed and the responsibilities of the office.”

If the scope of the position changes or the job responsibilities change, Jensen ruled, a salary reduction reflecting those changes would be appropriate.

But in Kovacs’ case, the assessor’s duties remain the same regardless of whether Kovacs or a successor adequately fulfills them.

“Because the position of assessor is an elected position, this reduction in salary not only affected Kovacs for his remaining term limit, but it affects whomever was elected and set to take over in January,” Jensen wrote. “While the board positions the reduction as a reaction to Kovacs’ failure to perform all the duties of the job, the reality is that by changing the salary for the assessor, the board has essentially said that the full performance of the assessors’ statutory duties and responsibilities is worth $45,000, not the original $90,000.”

Jensen denied Kovacs’ request for attorney’s fees, on the grounds that commissioners did not act “without a reasonable basis in fact or law.”

Commissioners acknowledged the ruling Wednesday afternoon.

“The current BOCC believes that public officials should be held to account in a public setting if such officials breach their statutory requirements,” the board said in a statement. “Consequently, this BOCC is looking forward to working with the assessor, and all other elected officials, throughout their terms.”

Read the full decision at cdapress.com.