Kootenai County voters have been asked to weigh in on locating a potential criminal re-entry center in their community and support for an urban renewal tax program, although the results won’t be binding.
Still, ballot question backers say they hope voters will send a message to decision-makers as they ponder tax breaks for developers and whether to build the Idaho Department of Correction facility, part of an effort at criminal justice reform in the state.
“That is generally not an idea that’s favored over here,” Kootenai County Commissioner Bill Brooks said of a planned $12.2 million facility that would house 120 criminal offenders seeking entry back into society. “I get around and make it my job to listen, and people are opposed to it.”
The department has not issued formal plans for the building, which was included in the state’s Permanent Building Fund budget with a requirement to be built somewhere in North Idaho. Several dozen community members, Brooks among them, gathered late last summer to organize against the proposal.
The Correction Department says the facility would be built in an effort to reduce recidivism and lessen the demand on the state’s jail beds. The facility would cater to people looking to return to North Idaho, said Josh Tewalt, the agency’s director, in an interview last August.
Brooks said he believed voters would send their message at the ballot box for the department to rethink their plans.
“If one person of Kootenai County were raped, robbed, murdered or assaulted by someone released from that prison release center, I will feel personally responsible, whether it’s during my time in office or after,” Brooks said.
Jeff Ray, public information officer for the department, said there was no set timetable for determining where the facility would be located. Ray said existing re-entry centers work best in collaboration with communities, and that would be a factor in determining where the North Idaho facility would be located.
“Community re-entry centers help prepare people to return to their home communities, and the model works best when the community is actively engaged with the re-entry of its returning citizens,” Ray wrote in an email. “IDOC will work with local permitting authorities to ensure any potential site is in the best interest of public safety and local community needs.”
Brooks is ambivalent about the other question on the ballot, which asks voters to weigh in on what are known as urban renewal districts. Idaho state law permits creation of these areas, which freeze property tax values in an effort to promote development. The method has been used in Kootenai County to develop the Village at Riverstone commercial development off Northwest Boulevard and the renovation of McEuen Park downtown.
The latest proposal using the method is a revitalization of the area surrounding the city’s health care providers, a district just south of Interstate 90 between Northwest Boulevard and Government Way.
That proposal, approved by the Coeur d’Alene City Council in 2019, prompted county Treasurer Steve Matheson to question county residents about whether they approved of the use of the districts, which he said shifts the property tax burden to other Kootenai County residents without allowing them a say in who controls the money.
“Property taxpayers within those other tax-collecting districts are paying for city infrastructure that they have no say on, because they can’t vote,” Matheson said.
Brooks said the advisory vote was “absolutely meaningless” because existing urban renewal districts had already been approved. Still, he voted to put the question on the ballot.
“It’s kind of like sticking a thumb in the eye of the city. Like it or not, we need each other’s cooperation,” Brooks said, although he also said he opposed the idea of the districts because it limited participation in how tax dollars are spent.
Matheson said he hoped voters countywide would send a message at the ballot box that would be difficult for future governments to ignore when exploring the idea of establishing another urban renewal district within the county.
Ballots for the primary are due to the Kootenai County Elections Office by 8 p.m. Tuesday. By order of Gov. Brad Little due to the coronavirus pandemic, all ballots for the original May 19 primary are to be submitted via mail or hand delivery.
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