County workers could get raises

Proposed 2013 budget has $5.7 million shortfall

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Kootenai County's elected department heads have prepared a preliminary $87 million budget for fiscal year 2013, with a proposed 3 percent raise for all 700 county employees.

The preliminary budget also estimates a shortfall of more than $5.7 million, if the commissioners agree to all personnel requests, capital requests and additional operating costs.

The commissioners are reviewing the proposed budget and are free to make changes before publishing it and holding a public hearing at the end of the month.

Above all, "the commissioners have taken the stance we would not like to take any of our 3 percent allowable (property tax increase), and to make it go within what we have," said Commissioner Todd Tondee.

Employee raises were a priority for county department heads, said Clerk Cliff Hayes.

Pay increases this fiscal year "got eaten up by health care insurance," Hayes said, adding that he is "particularly interested in the $11-an-hour employee."

The wage increase is estimated to cost $1 million.

The preliminary budget also includes more than $1.6 million in personnel requests, $2.3 million in operating costs in excess of the base budget, and $2.3 million in capital requests.

If all approved, those would add up to a nearly $6 million shortfall, according to the document.

Commissioner Jai Nelson said the commissioners have been meeting with department heads to reduce the figure.

"We've whittled it down," she said, adding that doing so isn't easy. "Now we have to really look at some of the capital requests and some of our base operating costs."

Providing the proposed raises could be difficult, Nelson said.

Especially, she noted, with the preliminary budget also estimating a $102,000 cost increase for involuntary police holds.

"The wages are going to be a challenge," Nelson said.

Commissioner Dan Green said the other officials have also asked the county to take on a $675,000 cost increase for the employee health care plan.

"That's part of the compensation package," Green said. "I consider that a raise."

The other county officials encourage the commissioners to levy more property taxes, according to a letter Hayes sent the commissioners with the budget.

Doing so could accommodate the wage increases, he wrote, as well as the rise in cost for police holds and Panhandle Health District.

The other officials also left $640,000 in the budget for the commissioners to use for personnel and capital requests, with the recommendation they not fund any requests beyond that, he said.

"That's what they can use, without affecting the tax base," Hayes said.

County officials didn't recommend specific cuts to non-mandatory services, as they did last year for the University of Idaho Extension Office and the North Idaho Fair and Rodeo.

"I got beat up last year. U of I, 4 H was a big one," Hayes said, alluding to feared impacts to 4 H, one of the Extension Office's programs.

The county might, however, change its relationship with the Extension Office to a contractual one, Hayes added.

"We gave them money, we gave them employees, we paid their bills, now we're going to give it to the school," Hayes said of what might happen. "They're going to handle all the hiring, paying the bills and doing whatever."

The current fiscal year's budget is $74 million.

The new budget should end up close to that, Hayes said. The $87 million figure includes departments' wish lists, as well as the fee-funded Solid Waste Department.

The budget must be finalized and published by Aug. 15.

A public hearing on the county budget has been scheduled for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 29, in rooms 1A and 1B of the county Administration Building.

Tondee said the commissioners are weighing everything carefully.

"We're looking at the budget and trying to answer all the questions," he said.

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