BONNERS FERRY, Idaho – The Idaho capital moved to the Canadian border Tuesday as Gov. Butch Otter set up office in Boundary County and opened the door to any resident with a concern – or compliment – about state government.
Last summer’s flooding of the Kootenai River, which runs through downtown Bonners Ferry and past City Hall, where the Republican governor sat, was the first issue raised. There also was discussion of U.S. Highway 95, mental health, skyrocketing property taxes and Coeur d’Alene’s desire to create an education corridor along the Spokane River.
Boundary County farmers and property owners sustained millions of dollars in damage in June when crops washed away. The flooding also caused an estimated $50 million in damage to flood protection dikes along the river.
Otter promised residents he would write letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Weather Service, demanding that Idaho have a say when the federal government makes decisions on how to manage the flow of the Kootenai River.
“I’m going to say, ‘Give us a heads up when you guys are going to do something crazy like that,’ ” Otter said in response to displeasure that the corps made decisions about the Kootenai River from a Portland office and never asked the state for guidance.
Bonners Ferry Mayor Darrell Kerby said he expects a reconnaissance report from the corps within the next month that outlines the condition of the dikes and repairs needed.
He hopes that the repair costs aren’t as expensive as initially presumed because there is a chance that farmers won’t have to build the dikes as high. Most of the earthen dikes were built before 1975 and the operation of Libby Dam, which controls the river flow. Now, because of the dam, any replacement dikes may not need the elevation, which could lower the cost, Kerby said.
After getting a thorough briefing on the flooding and dike situation, Otter took the opportunity to display his ever-present humor.
“Any other dam problems,” Otter said, getting laughs from the 35 residents and government officials squeezed in the City Council chambers.
Bonners Ferry resident John Tucker asked why improvements to a curvy stretch of Highway 95 near McArthur Lake had been delayed, when in his view it is one of the most treacherous stretches remaining.
“There’s no way to avoid an accident in that area,” Tucker said, referring to the narrow road with little shoulder.
Later at a lunch meeting with the Kootenai Tribe, the same question arose.
Otter said that the top priority for U.S. 95 improvements are those areas with the most accidents. Then the state will concentrate on relieving congestion to help commerce.
The governor also asked the Legislature to not get involved with prioritizing improvements because it becomes too political. Yet Otter said he has full confidence in the Idaho Transportation Department’s ability to decide which projects are most important.
Trecy Carpenter, of Idaho Citizens for Tax Reform, drove up from Bonner County to ask for a cap on property value assessments before residents are taxed out of their homes.
Otter said he supports legislation working its way through the Legislature to limit assessment values on property to the inflation rate. Yet he isn’t so sure such a measure could pass this session. He said it has a better chance in 2008, an election year.
Betty Kinne, of Kootenai, also came north to ask Otter why, in her 54 years of living in Bonner County, Sandpoint hasn’t gotten a byway to reroute truck traffic from downtown.
“I want to see asphalt,” Kinne said.
Otter said the project has funding and is waiting on permits, but the process is delayed by opposition groups who don’t want the truck route to disturb Sand Creek.
“I’d love to come up and cut the ribbon with you,” Otter said.
The governor, who was elected in November, plans to have similar “Capitol for a Day” sessions in “every corner of Idaho” during his four-year term. Otter is reviving the hometown visits started by Gov. John Evans in the 1980s. The program ended when Evans left office.
The governor’s office hasn’t yet released the location of the next visit.