Land-use planning has surfaced as the most acrimonious issue in the District 2 race for the Kootenai County Board of Commissioners.
Jai Nelson and Chris Fillios are running against commission Chairman Elmer “Rick” Currie, who is seeking his fourth term. Fillios is taking his first stab at public office, but Nelson ran against Currie in the May 2008 primary.
Whoever wins the Republican primary wins the four-year, $71,080-a-year seat because no Democrats entered the race.
Both Nelson and Fillios criticize the current commission for delaying approval of the county’s first comprehensive plan update since 1994.
Fillios accuses the commission of “fearing the business community” and using “stall tactics” to delay passage of the plan. “They don’t want to face the hard decisions to move the plan forward,” said Fillios, a Realtor and appraiser. Fillios criticizes Currie and Commissioner Rich Piazza for a decision to strip density requirements from the plan, which he said will “deepen the divisions in the county” between rural residents and special-interest groups.
Nelson said the commissioners “vacillate on issues,” causing Kootenai County to be in a “stall pattern,” which leads to public distrust. She said the commissioners need to respond more promptly to citizens’ concerns, especially related to the building and planning department, which she said is blocking much of the permit approval. “Many issues are being postponed or not addressed because it’s an election year,” Nelson said.
Currie agrees that completing the land-use plan must be the top priority in the next term. But he said the document is flawed and he refuses to rubber-stamp it. “It has to represent all the citizens. It cannot be a special-interest document,” Currie said. “We’re getting close, but we’ve got a little ways to go yet.” He said only three of Idaho’s 44 counties include density requirements in their plans and that those rules belong in zoning ordinances, which will be addressed when the comprehensive plan is complete.
He agrees work needs to be done to improve customer service in the building and planning department. After a recent forum was held for citizens to air grievances about the department, Currie said, the county began placing comment sheets in all permit packets. “The majority are complimentary,” he said. “When they’re not, we’re on it.” He said the county also “tightened up” a policy requiring phone calls be returned.
Currie said he’s proud of the working relationships the county has developed with the cities, the fire districts and the highway districts. He said that type of cooperation is not present elsewhere in the state. He also cites as accomplishments an expanded parks department; the new transfer station on the Rathdrum Prairie; and an agreement with Kootenai Electric Cooperative to burn the methane gas produced by the county dump to produce power.
“I still have a passion for the job,” Currie said. “There are some great things left to be done.”
Nelson, a lifelong Kootenai County resident, said she’s intimately acquainted with services that affect rural residents because she is one, living at Rockford Bay. She said through her work as a commercial interior designer, she’s worked extensively with the building industry and understands county ordinances. In years of running for commissioner, she said she’s become knowledgeable of county budgets and operations.
“I’ll hit the ground running,” she said. “I’ll be ready to go. I’ve done the research.”
She proposes putting the county checkbook online to show citizens where their money is being spent. She’d like to see a two-year freeze on property tax-based budget increases, with any shortfalls covered by reserve funds. And she’d like to remove politics from land-use planning by bringing in a hearing examiner from another area to remove the potential for bias.
“I want to get Kootenai County moving forward again,” she said.
Fillios moved here 11 years ago and said he’s managed people, projects and budgets and thinks he could make a difference. His wife, Linda, serves on the county’s planning commission and watching her work through the comprehensive plan interested him in county governance, he said.
Fillios also has ideas about eliminating acrimony around land-use decisions. He’d like to see commissioners encourage developers to meet with neighborhood groups ahead of time to address differences. He said neighborhood groups get branded as “anti-growth,” which he calls nonsense. “They just want to see people play by the rules,” he said.
Fillios also would like to see the county expand business recruitment beyond California and said he’ll push to hire more sheriff’s deputies to combat the county’s rising crime rate. “I’ve heard for years it’s time to raise the bar,” he said. “We need to get people elected who have experience and education.”
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