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Panabaker facing 3 challengers

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)

It’s winner takes all in the May 25 Republican primary race for the District 3 Kootenai County Commission seat.

Three candidates are fighting against Commission Chairman Dick Panabaker for his job — Republicans Katie Brodie, Rich Piazza and Mike Piper.

It’s perhaps one of the hottest races on the primary ticket, not only because the winner gets the job but also because the four candidates have strikingly different platforms.

Panabaker, 63, a former Hayden mayor who was elected to the County Commission in 1994, wants to stay in office another two years because he thinks there’s a lot of unfinished business. He also said he refuses to “roll over” for the special interest groups, namely Hagadone Corp., Concerned Businesses and Jobs Plus.

Brodie, 57, a former Kootenai County Planning Commission chairwoman and Jobs Plus assistant, said her aim is to figure out how to reduce the county’s spending while attracting commercial and clean industrial businesses to Kootenai County to expand the tax base.

Piazza, 57, a retired county tax assessor, thinks the commission needs an ordinary citizen who will represent everyone in the county, not just special interests.

Piper, 57, is in the race because he’s upset with how the county is managing growth. As the leader of several conservation watchdog groups, Piper wants the county to start enforcing its current laws for classifying and subdividing land.

Panabaker alleges he is targeted by several local groups because he voted against giving local business recruiter Jobs Plus more county cash. He thinks these groups hand-selected Brodie as a candidate.

In previous commission races, Concerned Businesses had given money to Panabaker. This time the political action committee donated $1,000 to Brodie’s campaign.

“I see some bad things happening,” Panabaker said. “The Hagadone bunch is trying to fill spots with their own people. I wanted to retire but I don’t want to see that happen.”

Piazza and Piper also said they are against special interests taking over the county and they are in support of the common county resident.

Brodie adamantly denies that she was running on behalf of Hagadone Corp., Concerned Businesses or Jobs Plus and counters that she got into the race because of her own concern for the county.

“It’s simply not true,” Brodie said, adding that she has never been involved with Concerned Businesses. “I was never approached. Nobody picked me. It was a vision last summer on my own part.”

Panabaker alleges he was threatened by Coeur d’Alene multimillionaire Duane Hagadone in 2002 and heavily lobbied by Jobs Plus to give $50,000 of county money to support Jobs Plus’ recruiting efforts. Panabaker and the commission voted to give the $50,000 on a one-time only basis. The next year the commission pared down the contribution to $20,000, which Panabaker said angered Jobs Plus and Hagadone representatives.

The commission is working on the fiscal year 2005 budget and Panabaker said he believes business recruitment is important for the county’s economic base, but he questions why the county should subsidize a non-government entity with taxpayers’ dollars. That’s especially true in these tough economic times, he said, when the county needs to find ways to pay some county employees better salaries.

Brodie, who works for Idaho Forest Industries as a property manager, said she supports Jobs Plus and that its recruiting work is a good investment for county money. She has traveled with the Jobs Plus board and said it makes a good impression to have county officials’ backing. She said former Commissioner Frank Henderson used to travel often with recruiters.

“It’s critical for (the county) to take a real active role,” Brodie said.

Panabaker questions who would do the commission work of overseeing everything from waste management to tax bills if a commissioner was traveling around the country.

Panabaker said he wants to focus on issues such as the county’s relationship with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, his work on the Coeur d’Alene River Basin Commission that oversees cleanup on mining waste in the basin, and making sure portions of the Rathdrum Prairie are reserved for open space.

He said the biggest concerns facing Kootenai County are ensuring adequate water and sewer protections with the skyrocketing population growth. That’s why the commission is currently working to rewrite the county’s rules for subdividing and classifying land. Once that’s done the commission will start revising the comprehensive plan, which is the foundation of all land-use decisions.

“You have to respect private property rights and allow people to work and make a living,” Panabaker said. “It’s a balancing act.”

All three of his challengers think the county has done a poor job of including residents in the redrafting of those rules.

While on the planning commission, Brodie said she worked on the comprehensive plan and never was the public left out like it is now. She thinks the current commission should take a timeout and let more people in on the drafting, so it’s not just staff.

She also thinks the commission has been “lazy” in its oversight of the county’s $54 million budget.

Piazza wants to make sure the county is involved in securing the federal cash needed to study the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for 400,000 people. As a former county employee, Piazza said he has seen firsthand how the commission has mismanaged money over the years.

For example, he said the county wasted too much money on rent payments and leases over the years instead of buying or building its own office buildings such as the County Administration Building. The current commission, including Panabaker, often counts it as a victory that the county is no longer renting out any buildings. Piazza said that’s good but they could have made those decisions 20 years sooner.

Piazza ran against Panabaker in 2000 along with Republican Greg Wells. That July, Panabaker was arrested for drunken driving and was sentenced to 16 hours in the sheriff’s labor program along with a year of probation.

Piazza also thinks the commission’s plan to hire an out-of-state consultant to do a wage and benefit study is a farce. Piazza said current county employees are capable of doing the review and that there’s no reason some employees are so underpaid while others are overpaid.

Brodie and Piper are also against the wage and salary study consultant. Yet Panabaker said if the study was done internally it would be viewed as suspect.

Piazza said the county may not be able to afford to pay many employees more money but it could entice them to stay by enhancing their benefits, such as early retirement programs and allowing retirees to stay on the county’s health system. He said the retired employee would pay the entire cost, but because they would be under the county’s plan they would get a group rate.

“I really want to make a change to represent all the people,” Piazza said. “I don’t think that’s happened in the past.”

Piper’s focus is to bring responsible growth management to the county. As president of the conservation groups Save Hayden Lake, Alliance for Responsible Growth and Canfield Mountain Preservation, Piper wants the county to ask the Idaho Legislature to change state law to allow counties to charge impact fees just like cities do to help pay for infrastructure in new developments.

“The governor should take this on because the financial structure of the state would excel tremendously,” Piper said.

If the county spent less money on roads and other infrastructure needs resulting from new developments, it would have more money for other things, such as employee salaries, he said.

He said his groups have changed the debate in the county and now the commissioners and planning commission are more aware of the impacts of development, especially on local lakes and wetlands.

Piper takes credit for helping encourage the county to reject plans for the proposed Green Meadows subdivision that’s next door to his home on Lancaster Road. The county also rejected in 2002 the 184-lot Lost Creek subdivision west of Rathdrum proposed by Idaho Forest Industries and Brodie.

Piper said he’s not an environmentalist who wants to stop growth. He just wants the county to enforce the laws that it has on the books, especially when it comes to stormwater and erosion precautions.

“I’m not a spotted owl, tree hugger,” Piper said. “I’m an individual who sees the problems we have in this area and we don’t have much time left.”

The Coeur d’Alene Area Chamber of Commerce is having a candidate forum Tuesday for both the District 2 and 3 Kootenai County Commission races. In District 2, Commissioner Rick Currie is vying for re-election against local businesswoman Claudia Brennan. The outcome of this race will also be determined during the May 25 Republican primary. The 6 p.m. forum is at Coeur d’Alene High School. Students will tape the forum and broadcast it on the city’s local cable channel at a later date. For more information on the forum, call 415-0113.