With its lakes, mountains, clean air and low crime rate, Bonner County has become an ideal place to live. But it’s also becoming a tough place to make a living, a state labor analyst said Monday.
“It’s a beautiful area that has attracted a lot of people, but the challenge is finding jobs for all the new people moving in,” said Kathryn Tacke, an analyst for the Idaho Department of Employment.
Tacke spoke to a coalition of county health and human service agencies, telling them the explosive growth has been a blessing and a curse.
“The good news is we have had strong employment growth and there are a greater number of opportunities for people here,” she said. “The pitfall is most of those jobs are seasonal or part-time and pay lower wages. And the growth has been a strain on schools, roads, water and sewer systems and on social services.”
County officials already knew that. The school district has overcrowded classrooms. The sheriff’s department ships its overflow of prisoners to other jails. And the library district needs a new building that’s double the size of its current facility.
Since 1990, Bonner County’s population has jumped from about 26,600 to 33,000. Tacke said an average of 1,300 people have moved into the county each year for the past five years.
That makes Bonner County the fourth fastest-growing county in Idaho just behind Ada, Canyon and Kootenai counties.
Still, Bonner County has an unemployment rate of 8 percent, 2 percent higher than the state average. The average annual wage here is only $12,693. With adjustments for inflation, that’s actually less than the average wage in 1980, which was $13,992.
“The job growth is in trade and service industries which have the lowest wages of all,” Tacke said.
Families can’t always support themselves on those minimum wage jobs and often turn to social service programs, food banks and other organizations to survive. “It’s getting harder for people to live and raise families here,” Tacke said.
Bonner County has lost high-paying timber industry jobs, about 100 in the past year, said Shawn Keough, manager of the Chamber of Commerce Timber Information program. “Those are critical jobs that we must try and save,” Keough said.
When one member of the family loses a high-paying job, then two members of the family have to find work to make up for the loss in income, she added.
“That’s difficult to do when jobs are hard to come by in the first place and there are more people here competing for the same jobs.”
The county’s dismal statistics in the wage and employment areas have prompted county officials to call for an “economic summit.”
Local leaders will meet in February to draft a long-range economic vision for the community.
“The timber industry is slowly eroding here and we need to take a real hard look at that and address the problem,” Keough said.