As promised, Bonner County’s new commissioners took the meat ax to local government, abolishing the entire building department and its eight employees.
In a raucous meeting attended by about 100 people Wednesday, newly elected Republicans Bud Mueller and Larry Allen voted to do away with the department and inspectors and institute a flat $10 fee for anyone who wants to build in the county.
Some at the meeting were outraged when the commissioners shut off public comment on the radical proposal after only two people had spoken. One audience member called the new commissioners Nazis.
“After 17 years with the county, I have never seen anything like this in my life,” said building director Bob Garrison. “They let two people speak, took a vote, and we were gone. They told us to pack our things and be out by Friday.”
Commissioner Dale Van Stone voted against the plan and was furious about how the meeting was handled. It could be a violation of the open-meetings law, he said.
“I have grave concerns about this. It was a done deal before we went into the meeting. I’m very disappointed,” Van Stone said.
This was a drastic move and should have required public hearings, Van Stone said, questioning the county’s legal counsel, who apparently had reviewed the new law abolishing the department.
The two new commissioners also voted to eliminate the positions of road supervisor and solid waste director and hire a county civil engineer to replace them.
One county official said there is not enough money in the budget to cover the lawsuits the new commissioners created at their second business meeting.
“Whether you agree or disagree with the outcome, this just wasn’t done properly,” Van Stone said.
Garrison said the item to eliminate his department was hidden in the commissioners’ agenda so neither the public nor county employees knew what was going on.
“They said everything was going to be discussed in public, but they deprived the public the right of knowing what they were doing,” he said. “They set their own agenda, didn’t talk to anyone in the county and turned around and slammed us with this.”
But the two new commissioners defended their decision, saying it shouldn’t have come as any surprise. The two had campaigned for less government and talked about ridding the county of its planning and building department.
“I ran on reducing county government and took a lot of public comment the last year while I campaigned,” Mueller said. “I finally decided it was time to do something. The building department is gone and it is done.”
The commissioners said the inspection process can be taken over by private industry, and banks likely will require some type of inspection when they issue loans. Builders still will have to meet state regulations, which include electrical, plumbing and sewer inspections.
“We haven’t stopped any of that and we haven’t taken away any of the safety items,” Mueller said. “Lending institutions used to have their own inspectors and they will get used to it again.”
Commissioner Allen wrote much of the new law abolishing the department and had the county’s civil attorney review it. He said it is legal and the state does not require counties to have inspectors, a building department or building codes.
There are more than 100 jurisdictions in the state of Idaho that have no building codes, Allen said, noting Boundary County is one of them.
“I think this will improve the county economy and allow taxpayers to exercise their rights to construct their own homes,” Allen said.
The building department had a $260,000 budget and the commissioners say it will save taxpayer money in the long run. However, Garrison said his department was nearly self-sufficient. Most of the money spent to run the department was generated by permit and inspection fees.
Van Stone and County Clerk Marie Scott both fear lawsuits. Builders already have paid about $1 million in fees for projects that aren’t complete. “Is that money to be refunded? I don’t know, I’m not sure of all the impacts of this yet,” Van Stone said.
Like Garrison, lenders and real estate agencies fear there will be a free-for-all in the county without any building codes. The Bonner County Board of Realtors was stunned by the new law and the group plans to oppose it. Some members were at the meeting but were not allowed to speak.
“The way I see it, they are infringing on my right to protect my property from some yo-yo who will build God-knows-what next to me,” Garrison said.
What angered Garrison most is he met with the new commissioners weeks ago after hearing rumors his department was on the chopping block. He asked what he could tell his employees so they had time to hunt for other jobs, but was given no warning.
“That’s what really stinks. I have employees wondering what they are going to do.”
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