Group’s Role Causes Concern Concerned Businesses’ Constant Budget Monitoring Is Questioned

Under pressure to keep property taxes static, city officials are already looking for ways to pare next year’s budget.

They are operating under scrutiny from Concerned Businesses of North Idaho, which is monitoring nearly every staff discussion on the 1996-97 spending plan. The final budget will be adopted by the council in September.

Concerned Businesses’ role is drawing fire from some quarters. “I’d like to know who died and made Concerned Businesses inspector general,” said Jeff Coulter, executive director of the Citizens Network for Responsible Growth.

Coulter said he worries Concerned Businesses will exert too much influence. “Why else would they do it?”

Concerned Businesses says it’s offering fiscal management ideas to the city, much as it did with Kootenai County last year. “To me, it’s a helping relationship,” said Steve Judy, executive director of the business advocacy group.

“Government, just like anybody, can get caught looking at things in a certain box,” Judy said. “We can help them look outside the box.”

Mayor Al Hassell said the group isn’t getting any special advantage by attending all staff and administrator meetings about budget cuts.

“These meetings are not participatory,” Hassell said, “they are not public meetings per se.” At most, Concerned Businesses might come away with more specific examples of places spending could be changed.

Spending cuts are likely in any case. While the city expects to gain $226,000 in property taxes on new construction, it also has to come up with $407,000 to cover salary increases negotiated last year for Coeur d’Alene’s 226 full-time employees.

“We have to make up the difference from existing sources” in order to keep spending from increasing, Hassell said. That means the city’s appetite for property tax dollars won’t increase.

“The average person is paying about the same to the city as they were five years ago,” Hassell said.

The city may have to come up with larger cuts in the future if the 1 percent initiative - which would limit property tax increases - passes. That could cost Coeur d’Alene $252,000 a year, but wouldn’t take affect until the 1997-98 budget year.

Simultaneously, if voters agreed to a 1 cent increase in the sales tax, the city would have $2.5 million more. Again, that likely wouldn’t kick in for two years.

The City Council considered several ways of slimming spending at a meeting last week. They include:

Dropping the $10,000 annual membership dues it pays to Jobs Plus.

Asking the school district to cough up $22,000 - half the cost of the DARE officer’s salary.

Canceling a $47,000 contract with the Kootenai Humane Society for animal control. Kootenai County would take care of animal control - something it already collects taxes to do, Hassell said.

Keeping all of the fine money the city collects.

Coeur d’Alene has been sending about $45,000 a year in fine money to the county, a practice that started a few years ago when the courts put out a plea for help. But Coeur d’Alene has been the only steady contributor.

“It’s unfair for the taxpayers of Coeur d’Alene to have to do what taxpayers of other cities don’t have to do,” Hassell said.

The City Council ruled out several proposed cuts. Those no longer on the table include eliminating summer lifeguards at the city beach, eliminating summer reserve police officers, taking property theft reports over the telephone instead of dispatching a police officer to the scene, and buying two replacement police cars instead of four.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Where Coeur d’Alene’s money goes now

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