Kootenai County Commissioner Dick Compton told a statewide audience this week that Idaho’s counties are getting innovative because they must.
“Taxpayers are mad as hell,” Compton said. “And the feds aren’t going to give us more money.”
Compton and Pocatello City Councilwoman Karen McGee gave the local government perspective to nearly 300 state legislators, local and state officials and business people assembled for the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho annual conference on Wednesday. The theme of the conference, traditionally a warmup for the legislative session, was “The Reality of Less Reliance on Government and Taxes.”
Compton said Kootenai County’s commissioners are united in wanting to reorganize the county government to run more like a business, while reducing reliance on property taxes.
“That’s what the taxpayers of this state have said,” he said, “and that’s certainly what they said in Kootenai County.”
He recounted hearing 749 property tax assessment appeals this year. “If you want to spend a rotten summer … ” he said to broad laughter.
Compton said the county developed mission and vision statements and operating principles for county workers to follow, with the workers’ help. “People will only support what they’ve helped to create,” he said. The principles point county government toward “customer focus,” accountability, teamwork and communication.
It paid off, Compton said. An example: “The airport had 40 million tons of dirt it wanted to get rid of. The landfill, over here, was about to buy 40 million tons of dirt.”
Better communication meant saving money, he said.
The process hasn’t been without bumps, Compton acknowledged. “The local merchants are mad as hell because we now are going to buy our office supplies from Boise Cascade and save thousands of dollars.”
In another case, “We privatized the janitorial service. My wife’s nephew was one of the janitors. He got laid off when we went to a private contractor, which made for interesting conversations around home.”
And when the three Republican commissioners named Democrat Tom Taggart as the county’s first administrator, “The fact that he was a Democrat upset the Republicans. But it was the right thing to do.”
Compton said Idaho’s counties need legislation allowing for more local decision making, on everything from county government structure to impact fees. He also called for a fairer distribution of sales and liquor tax revenues. “We kick in about 15 percent, and only get 7-1/2 percent back,” he said. “Fair is fair.”
Shrinking federal funds and angry taxpayers aren’t all bad, Compton said. “We view this not as a time of crisis, but as a time of opportunity. It’s time we made some changes and moved into the 1990s.”
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