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Coeur d’Alene mayor candidates disagree on how to handle growth, but find common ground on pandemic mandates

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 25, 2021

By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

Like much of Kootenai County, the city of Coeur d’Alene has seen significant growth in recent decades, with population up 57% in the last 20 years and, at 54,600, more than twice as big as it was just 30 years ago.

The three candidates for mayor have different ideas on how that growth should be managed over the next four years.

For Jim Hammond – a former Post Falls mayor, state senator and Coeur d’Alene city administrator – the discussion over growth needs to shift to a different phase as North Idaho has diversified from its historic resource-based economy to a mixture that includes construction and technology.

“In the past, we were struggling to find jobs,” Hammond said. “Now we have the jobs, but we don’t have the workforce.”

Along with the need for more and better training, he believes the rising cost of housing is discouraging some qualified workers from moving in.

Joe Alfieri – a retiree who moved to the area nine years ago after careers in advertising, sales, web design and opening and operating New York City’s first Computerland computer store – describes himself as a “political refugee” and an average citizen concerned with the city’s future. He wants to do more to help small businesses grow rather than pushing Urban Renewal Districts that would attract outside companies.

“Small businesses are the heart of any community,” said Alfieri, who wants to form a business council to help them grow.

A first-time candidate, Alfieri originally announced a campaign for the city council as a way of “getting my feet wet” in politics, but switched to the mayor’s race after urging from contacts in the Kootenai County Republican Party. City positions are officially nonpartisan, and while the local GOP doesn’t endorse, it did “recommend” Alfieri, who describes himself as a “Trump Republican.”

Michael Lentz – a recent resident positioning himself as an outsider – said Coeur d’Alene needs to change directions.

“The city needs to reorient away from planning for the future to preserving what residents have,” Lentz said. “I want to preserve everything as it is now.”

He said he would oppose any zoning changes that moved single family areas in the existing city to a higher density, relegating higher-density housing zones to newly annexed areas, and explore ways to charge higher taxes or fees to out-of-state residents building condominiums or operating vacation rentals by owner or VRBOs.

As someone who has lived in the area for less than a year, Lentz concedes that may sound like he found something he likes and wants to keep other newcomers from doing the same.

“That’s fair criticism,” he said. “But I chose to move here and I’m passionate about it.”

Hammond counters that the suggestion the city could stop all growth “is not realistic.”

One of the consequences of growth has been heavier traffic, and while commute times are still below the national average, Alfieri thinks the city could do more to get traffic moving, including having the traffic lights set electronically rather than manually and using roundabouts for some intersections.

“They take some getting used to, but they do work,” Alfieri said.

Some work is already being done to ease traffic congestion, Hammond said. New traffic lights on U.S. 95 and more lanes on State Highway 41 should make a difference. But with the state and federal government responsible for some of the roads, the city can’t solve the problems itself.

“Finding the money is the biggest challenge,” he said.

Traffic problems will take time to fix, Lentz agreed, but he ties the problems back to growth that he believes is not paying for its effects on the infrastructure.

All three are critical of the City Council’s controversial decision last October to impose a mask mandate in the absence of one from the Panhandle Health District. With COVID cases once again high in North Idaho, none would support a similar move now.

“Health is a personal decision,” said Lentz, who said the city should instead do a better job of educating the public about science around the disease. He contracted COVID shortly after filing for office.

People are responsible for their own health, Alfieri said, and the city should not impose any mandate on masks or vaccinations. It should make information available on alternative forms of medicine. Alfieri said he’s had COVID twice, once early on in the pandemic when it wasn’t readily diagnosed, and a second time with the delta variant. “I was down for about a month.”

Hammond said he’d work with medical professionals to educate the community about their options, but wouldn’t support any type of mandate because he doubts it would be enforceable.

“If you can’t enforce a law, you shouldn’t make it in the first place,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Oct. 25, 2021 to correct the spelling of candidate Michael Lentz.

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