The Kootenai County commissioners got more than they bargained for when they appointed a citizens committee to review wages of county employees.
The nine-member committee, consisting largely of local business people, gave the commissioners political cover to raise their salaries by recommending hefty wage increases for elected courthouse officials as well as bumps for other county employees. But the advisory panel didn’t stop there. It also suggested wholesale changes in the county’s form of government. These would include expanding the commissioner board to consist of five part-timers, hiring a county administrator to supervise the various departments, and making the assessor, treasurer, clerk and coroner appointive posts.
The committee was concerned about the inefficiencies built into the current system and wanted county government to operate more like a business.
The current county government structure has been in place since 1890 when Idaho became a state. There’s nothing sacrosanct about three commissioners overseeing the county budget and duties not relegated to the sheriff, prosecutor and other elected officials. Counties in other states, for example, embrace different forms of county government with success. An occasional debate about the structure of government is healthy. The commissioners should follow the committee recommendation to appoint another committee to study the county’s long-standing government structure.
However, the business leaders who have pushed for changes in county government for a while now shouldn’t be optimistic.
There have been two informal pushes to change Kootenai County’s government since Idahoans overwhelmingly voted in 1994 to give counties the authority to change their form of government, but no one locally has mustered the signatures necessary to bypass county commissioners and put the matter to a vote. In 1998, county commissioners refused to hold an election on a study commission’s recommendations to expand their board, create an administrator post and transform the jobs of all other elected officials into appointive ones.
The current recommendations are similar to that plan, except the sheriff and prosecutor would still be elected.
The alternative form of county government that’s been proposed is no more than a recommendation by a committee that exceeded its guidelines. It would be premature to draw conclusions, but the committee’s idea has some merit. Does a form of government adopted during the populist days of the 19th century West still work in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country? Does it still make sense to elect a treasurer, assessor, clerk and coroner when the city of Coeur d’Alene gets along fine with a part-time council, an administrator and by appointing department heads, including the chief of police?
It wouldn’t hurt to have a discussion about Kootenai County’s form of government.