COEUR d'ALENE - After absorbing two hours of earnest public comment at a budget hearing on Wednesday evening, the Kootenai County commissioners agreed to take another look at the proposed 2013 budget before voting on a final version next week.
The two commissioners at the meeting acknowledged passionate concerns from county staff and other citizens, some of whom requested cuts, others tax increases to meet employees' needs.
Commissioner Dan Green emphasized the difficulty of balancing such requests.
"If I were to put in a 3 percent tax increase right now, this room would be full, with a very different message," he said, speaking in the meeting room of the county administration building.
Several of the 50 attending the hearing demanded changes to the proposed $79 million budget.
Athol resident Bob Bingham criticized the hike in total budget from the current fiscal year's $74 million total, a change he worried would affect his taxes.
"Our family income is under $29,000," Bingham said. "What we're trying to help you understand is there's a lot of low-income people."
Green pointed out that the budget does not propose taking any of the possible 3 percent property tax increase.
He attributed the jump in the total budget to Solid Waste's $6 million expansion at the Fighting Creek Landfill, funded by Solid Waste fees.
"This will get a better deal," Green said of doing the project this year, when construction costs are low.
Dave Dunkin, president of the Kootenai County Deputy Sheriff's Association, pleaded for the commissioners to fund more deputy positions to protect the streets.
He also urged the commissioners to index the sworn employees' stepped funding matrix, to make up for years that the county didn't fund it.
Some like himself are paid two years behind where they should be, Dunkin said.
"You have to accept we don't have enough, and we're not paying well enough," he said. "Across the border, Spokane County hasn't hired in a year. That's not going to last forever. When they start hiring again, (county deputies) are going to go."
Commissioner Todd Tondee said he didn't expect to make up for previous boards' decisions not to fund the matrix.
"It's not something I would support," he said.
Green said Dunkin's requests were a stark contrast to others' pleas to cut spending.
"It's trying to balance all the needs," he said.
Rod Braun, Assessor's Office employee, said the county faces constant turnover and difficulty in attracting new, quality employees.
His own department has lost 55 employees in the last 10 years, he said.
Braun insisted the commissioners provide raises to meet cost of living increases, and also index matrix funding.
"It's only fair you look at all those areas of taking care of your employees," Braun said. "Turnover is too great to be cost effective. It's not fair to taxpayers."
Green said the answer was simple, but wouldn't be popular.
"To fix your issues is we just raise taxes," Green said. "But if we float a bond to increase your pay, I think I know what the answer will be, and it won't be the answer you want."
Maybe the commissioners should just take the 3 percent and accept the public's frustration, said Jan Lindquist, also with the Assessor's Office.
County employees feel the commissioners don't care about their compensation, she said.
"You have to make decisions that aren't always popular," Lindquist said. "You say you have to please taxpayers, but you have to remember the employees are also taxpayers."
Green and Tondee both said they absolutely care about employees.
After making any changes to the proposed budget, Tondee said, the commissioners will probably vote on a resolution at their business meeting at 2 p.m. next Tuesday in the administration building.
Commissioner Jai Nelson was excused from the hearing.
At the hearing, Finance Director Dave McDowell gave a quick run-through of the proposed $79,184,624 budget, up $127,000 from the initially published budget due to tweaks in some department expenses and the employee health benefits.
The proposed budget provides a 3 percent wage adjustment for all of the roughly 769 employees.
That includes the $363,541 increase in health insurance costs the county will absorb for the roughly 729 employees with benefits.
The insurance increase is less than the $575,000 previously modeled.
After subtracting the benefits cost, the rest of the roughly $1 million for wage adjustments would be distributed by department heads.
The officials would decide if the dollars were given as raises or one-time bonuses.
The county is also proposing to take $485,836 in new growth.
The budget includes $293,556 for property-tax based personnel, which covers four new employees and overtime increases. Two more new employees will be grant funded.
Large expenditure changes include an additional $102,000 for involuntary police holds.
More county budget information is available at www.kcgov.us.