Treat all money as carefully as your own.
Cheri Howell learned that lesson long ago working in a family-owned Spokane clothing store, where her job was catching thieving employees.
Now she’s put that maxim to work to save taxpayer dollars.
Less than a year after taking the helm as Kootenai County’s planning director, she has slashed expenses, cut staffing nearly 25 percent and reduced her annual budget by $161,765.
That’s no small feat, coming from the department that carries much of the burden for the county’s growth, said County Commissioner Dick Compton.
In a time when the county struggles to shed a bloated-government image, Howell is making changes at the most basic levels, hoping to convince residents “one person at a time” that government is working for them.
“She has demonstrated she understands the message from our board,” Compton said.
County Clerk Tom Taggart, who is chiefly responsible for the county budget, says the Planning Department has made the single biggest financial turnaround of any department.
“When you’re spending other people’s money, you have to be incredibly responsible,” Howell said.
Michael Hunt, co-owner of North Idaho Engineering, commended county commissioners Wednesday for Howell’s work and the polite, professional attitude of department workers.
“It’s a great switch from before,” he said.
Howell came to the department four years ago after spending most of her adult life working at Brooks Brothers in Spokane. The department spent a lot of money, had a bad public image and its employees were unhappy. In September 1994, she took over when former director Kathy Marcus resigned under pressure.
Four planners have since left for better jobs with higher pay. Howell restructured the office and has no plans to replace them.
It’s not that the workload has decreased - a two-year struggle over the comprehensive plan is over, but has been replaced by an increase in timeconsuming zone changes and large-lot subdivisions. Next fall, a long round of public meetings begins on a new zoning ordinance.
Her 12 employees simply do more work in less time. They say morale is higher.
“It’s considerably better than it was last year, even with fewer people,” said planner Larry Collier.
He says it’s communication, fairness, faith and work.
“When she wanted to trim employees she confronted all of us and said, ‘This is what I want to do, what do you think?”’ he said. “She was very smart on that.”
Howell credits her staff with patience and efficiency. She says she “cut until it hurt” then eased up, but staff members helped.
Eight-page memos and staff reports are now less than a page, yet say the same thing. Old computers are upgraded, rather than tossed aside for new ones. Employees work in teams of four for easier decision-making.
“I’m not a person who believes in autocratic decision-making,” Howell said. “Everyone knows what they’re supposed to do. It’s my job to let them do it and hold them responsible if they don’t.”
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