SANDPOINT — Positive changes are afoot in Bonner County, but commissioners say there are still struggles ahead.
That was the upshot of the State of the County address hosted by the Ponderay Community Development Corp. during its membership luncheon at Tango Café on Thursday.
Newly elected commission Chairman Cary Kelly said he’s only about halfway through meeting each of the county’s 330 employees, but is already struck by their professionalism and dedication to the county.
Although some grouse on Internet comment sections and message boards that employees are nothing but a drag on their property taxes, Kelly disagreed.
“They very often are under-recognized,” said Kelly.
Although law enforcement, emergency medical services and roads will continue to be funding priorities, Kelly expressed hope that employees will receive a boost in pay after seeing their paychecks shrink over the years.
Kelly said improving employee compensation would likely have to be done over a span of time instead of a single fiscal year.
“Maybe we can at least stop the bleeding,” he said.
Despite being in office for only about a month, Commissioner Joyce Broadsword said she’s already noticed an improved mood among workers at the Bonner County Administration Building. Feelings of dread and uncertainty about their employment futures are easing, she said.
“The atmosphere at the county administration building has made a drastic change,” said Broadsword.
Broadsword added that cooperation among departments and elected officials is also improving.
Commissioner Mike Nielsen said cooperation on the commission is also improving.
“This new board, we’re trying to pull in the same direction,” he said.
Broadsword is leaving office later this month to take a position as a regional Idaho Department of Health & Welfare official, an opportunity she says she did not court, but felt compelled to accept. Broadsword, a former state senator, said she got involved in politics to help people and her new position will allow her to help a greater segment of the population.
Broadsword said the grim list of incidents of gun violence over the last couple of years have a common thread.
“Every one of those was the result of somebody with mental illness,” said Broadsword.
Nielsen said a number of costly capital improvement projects are complete or nearly complete. They include the new juvenile detention center and the complete overhaul of the courthouse.
However, Nielsen said increases in operational costs pose the greatest challenges to balancing current levels of service and property taxes. The county’s health care costs are forecasted to increase by about 7 percent despite the implementation of an employee wellness program and other countermeasures.
“I’m sure we’re going to have a (tax) hit,” said Nielsen.
However, Nielsen hopes that impact could be mitigated by forgiving inter-fund loans between departments, a practice Nielsen and other officials contend was illegal.
Nielsen also pointed out that the county is embroiled in two legal disputes which could prove costly. One involves the county’s improper approval of a permit that enabled development in a floodway and the other involves a suit brought by SilverWing at Sandpoint, a fly-in residential development at the airport.
SilverWing accuses the county of, among other things, bad-faith dealings.
“We stand to lose $26 million,” he said, adding that the county is aggressively defending itself in the suit.