Reasons to change county’s government

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There has been a great deal of discussion on changing the form of county government to five part-time commissioners and a full-time manager. Many people know little about this so it might be worthwhile to take a closer look.

I know Dan Green and while we may not agree on everything, I found him to be a capable administrator and a good friend. I support the changes that have been proposed and believe we should again place this before the voters.

This type of governance is relatively common and used throughout the United States. Local examples are Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls, Rathdrum, and Hayden. It’s nothing new and has been around for a long time and is a very successful approach to governance while still providing effective public participation. I have never heard anyone suggest that we change the form of government for these communities, while I have heard for years the desire to change county government.

Our county commissioners endure meeting after meeting after meeting. It’s a wonder they get time to breathe. Having a full-time county manager would allow the commissioners time to focus on long-term policies and planning for the future.

Hiring a coroner, clerk, treasurer, and assessor makes good sense. Advertising for and carefully selecting candidates for those jobs based on written job descriptions and qualifications is a tried-and-true approach that any business person can appreciate. How many businesses would consider having an election for their treasurer?

For instance, the assessor in the county is a very important position. What kind of qualifications are needed to do the job? According to Idaho statutes, a candidate must be 21, a citizen, and a resident for at least a year. Once elected, we are bound to that person for four years. Yes, we could recall a bad assessor, but we know how hard that is to do. Wouldn’t it make sense to hire based on qualifications? For the record, Mike McDowell is a great assessor and should retain his position. Wouldn’t it be nice if he didn’t have to worry about party affiliations or campaigns?

It makes sense that county commissioners should be part time and compensated similar to city councilmen or mayors. This would free up funds to hire a professional manager without adding any additional burden to the taxpayers. Commissioners could pursue careers and still lead the county. Most mayors and council members make around $10,000 to $12,000 a year plus benefits. We could have five part-time commissioners for the cost of one and have more widespread representation.

Why is this being proposed?

One of the best reasons for this approach is that it will make our county government more efficient and more responsive. This change has been discussed for many years and has had recommendation from several study groups and ad-hoc committees.

What is the commissioner-manager form, used in so many local governments?

The commissioner-manager form is the system of local government that combines the strong political leadership of elected officials (the county commissioners) with the strong managerial experience of an appointed local government manager. The form establishes a representative system where power is concentrated in the elected commissioners who hire a professionally trained manager to oversee the delivery of public services.

Is it a responsive form of government?

In this form of government, commissioners are the leaders and policy makers, elected to represent Kootenai County and to concentrate on policy issues that are responsive to citizens’ needs and wishes. The manager is appointed by the commissioners to carry out policy and ensure that the citizens are being served. If the manager is not responsive to the commissioners’ wishes, the Board of County Commissioners has authority to terminate the manager at any time. In that sense, a manager’s responsiveness is tested daily.

What is the Board of County Commissioners’ function?

The BOCC is the legislative body; its members are the county’s decision makers. Power is centralized in the elected commissioners, who approve the budget and determine the tax rate, among other functions. The BOCC also focuses on the community’s goals, major projects, and such long-term considerations as community growth, land use planning, capital improvement plans, capital financing, and strategic planning. The BOCC hires a professional manager to carry out the administrative responsibilities and supervises the manager’s performance.

What is the manager’s function?

The manager is hired to serve the Board of County Commissioners and the county and to bring to the county the benefits of training and experience in administering local government projects and programs on behalf of the governing body. The manager prepares a budget for the commissioners’ consideration; recruits, hires, and supervises the county staff; serves as the commissioners’ chief adviser; and carries out the BOCC policies. Commissioners and citizens count on the manager to provide complete and objective information, pros and cons of the alternatives, and long-term consequences.

What is the cost to the local government of appointing a professional manager?

Many local governments have found that overall costs can be reduced with competent management. Savings can come in the form of reduced operating costs, increased efficiency and productivity, reduced commissioners’ salaries, and more effective use of technology. In the current Kootenai County budget there are ample funds in the commissioners’ budget to accommodate the manager’s salary and benefits with reductions in commissioners’ salary and benefits.

Does the manager participate in policy determination?

The manager makes policy recommendations to the BOCC, but the board may or may not adopt them, and may modify the recommendations. The manager is bound by whatever action the BOCC takes.

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Collin Coles is a retired city planner who worked in local government for more than 40 years. A Coeur d’Alene resident, he now spends most of his time doing important stuff, like fishing and being a grampa.

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