The question of how to lower property taxes had all the candidates, even the incumbents, stumped.
Yet the candidates for the two Kootenai County Commission seats on the May 25 Republican primary ballot promised to give it a try, or at least attempt to keep property tax rates at bay, during Tuesday’s Coeur d’Alene Area Chamber of Commerce candidate forum.
Commission Chairman Dick Panabaker is battling for re-election in District 3 against Republican challengers Katie Brodie, Rich Piazza and Mike Piper. Commissioner Rick Currie is vying against Republican Claudia Brennan in District 2.
Because there are no Democrat or third party challengers, next week’s primary is winner-takes-all for both seats.
About 75 people attended Tuesday’s forum at Coeur d’Alene High School.
Hayden resident Gail Thompson was there because she knows these races are crucial to the county’s future but she knows little about the candidates.
“I think it helped me make up my mind,” Thomspon said, but declined to say who would get her vote. “I think uncontrolled growth and the massive development are absolutely the most important things.”
Panabaker said all candidates, including himself when he first ran for the commission in 1994, make promises of less taxes and less government.
“The reality hits you right between the eyes when you get the job,” Panabaker said.
He said the county hasn’t been able to lower property taxes because of the area’s skyrocketing growth and demand for services. Another problem is that out-of-state people are paying too much for local real estate, which increases property values and taxes, he said. Panabaker said some residents, especially retirees on fixed incomes, can no longer afford the taxes on their homes. He said that problem must be fixed yet nobody has come up with a solution.
Piazza, who challenged Panabaker in 2000 and is a retired county tax assessor, said the state needs to raise the current $50,000 homeowners exemption, which has been in place since 1983. If people could take an exemption from the value of their land, not just their home, that would help make taxes more affordable, he said.Piper, who has started several watchdog groups to combat what he calls irresponsible growth, said charging developers impact fees to help the county pay for infrastructure costs would help free up cash in the county budget for other uses. The Idaho Legislature would have to change state law to allow counties to collect impact fees, similar to what some cities already charge developers.
Both Brodie and Brennan said the commission needs to do a better job of watching its money and should have zero-based budgets where departments don’t automatically get increases each year.
Currie said the county expects to get $700,000 this year from new development but because of that growth, the county is mandated to spend $250,000 for indigent care and $200,000 to expand the district court, in addition to other costs.
“Do the math – it’s gone,” Currie said about why the county asks residents for additional property taxes each year. “We have to be tight-fisted in a budget, and we are.”
Brennan said she struggles with Currie’s “mantra” that there are only so many dollars to go around. As a small-business owner, Brennan said, she has the background to make tough decisions. She wants closer scrutiny of the budget and to see if it’s possible to cut some unnecessary programs, although she gave no specific examples.
By managing the money better, Brennan said there would be more cash for things such as wages for Kootenai County Sheriff’s deputies, many of whom have left for higher paying jobs in Spokane.
Both Currie and Panabaker said they have given Sheriff Rocky Watson money to pay deputies more. Each year, they said, the sheriff gives small raises to deputies, and most of the cash goes to department administrators.
“I’m sick and tired of that happening and them blaming us for not giving them enough money,” Panabaker said.
Piper said he thinks the problem is more extensive than wages and that there could be other issues, such as morale. He wants a committee, perhaps of retired law enforcement officials, to interview current and past employees.
Piazza said he thinks the county could encourage people to stay at their jobs longer if they offered better benefits, while Brodie argued county employees already have better benefits than those who work for almost any other employer in the area.
“People would give their left arm for those,” Brodie said. “I’m not saying reduce them but we need to look at it.”
Protecting the Rathdrum Prairie and Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer was another hot topic.
All of the candidates agreed that the county needs to work with local cities to jointly manage the prairie and all said the public must be involved in rewriting the Comprehensive Plan, which is the foundation of all land-use decisions.
Brennan said commercial and light industrial uses should be allowed on the prairie because they would have fewer impacts on water and sewer than homes.
Brodie wants to make sure farmers are paid a price for their land if the county or cities want to buy and preserve open space. Panabaker said water and sewer issues are the most important challenges facing the county and that’s what will ultimately control growth. He said no more septic tanks should be allowed on the prairie and that the county is currently working on a way to buy green space, although he wouldn’t disclose any details.
Piazza said the main reason he is running against Panabaker, as he did in 2000, is that he disagreed with the county allowing the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway to build a refueling depot over the aquifer.
Coeur d’Alene High School students taped the forum, which will eventually air on local cable television. No broadcast date has been set.