By Lyndsie Kiebert
Bonner County released a $63 million proposed 2020 budget Aug. 14, unveiling a $6 million increase over last year’s budget and prompting a conversation about how, when and why elected county officials should receive pay raises.
Department heads received a bump after third-party human resources consultancy firm AmeriBen performed a county-wide wage study in 2015 showing workers in similar positions around the state took home larger salaries. At the same time, elected officials in the county made about $58,000 annually.
While elected officials weren’t part of that initial study, Bonner County Human Resources Director Cindy Binkerd decided to recommend increases for them, as well. Those increases have been implemented gradually in the years since AmeriBen concluded its study.
“They’re our employees. They deserve a fair compensation for the work that they do,” Binkerd said of elected officials, adding that those overseeing department heads should be making a percentage more than the people they manage.
“You can’t have a director that they supervise at $80,000 and they’re at $55,000,” she said.
In 2019, commissioner salaries reached $78,000. Under the proposed 2020 budget, commissioners will make $84,500. That’s a 69% increase — an average of 11.5% increase per year since 2014.
Commissioner Dan McDonald said the increased salaries will help encourage “qualified people” with experience managing hundreds of employees and large budgets to run for commissioner seats.
“It’s a big job and takes some specific skills to do it well,” he said. “We can go back to the ever-increasing budget numbers and see the results of having what are honorable people in the seat, but maybe not qualified for what this job has become.”
Commissioner Jeff Connolly will not be accepting a salary boost for the second year in a row. He said that during the 2019 budget workshops, the board initially discussed no raises for elected officials or department heads, but that those raises were added near the end of the budgeting process.
“It’s just not who I am to say one thing and do something different, so I chose not to raise a big stink and, after the budget was passed, I chose not to take the raise,” Connolly said.
As for 2020, Connolly said that while he supported the annual 3% “cost of living” merit raise across county salaries, he “couldn’t support the size of the proposed raise” for the commissioners and will again personally turn down the increased wage. He said he “will consider the data and information” from another AmeriBen study, set to be released in 2020, and revisit the issue when it comes time for 2021 budget discussions.
While the county considered taking foregone taxes during last year’s budgeting process and ultimately settled for the annually allowed 3% property tax increase, the board didn’t have to consider such measures for 2020.
Bonner County will not be raising property taxes at all in the coming fiscal year, only gaining income from new construction.
Last year, McDonald emphasized the roles of procurement and attrition in cutting costs. During the 2018 fiscal year — the first year the county implemented a special position to procure ordering across departments — McDonald said about 10% of ordering went through that office. In 2019, he said procurement is seeing “wider use.”
As for attrition, County Clerk Mike Rosedale said the 15 retirements the county planned on in 2019 did not occur. Instead, he said the county has added employees, accounting for some of the increase between the 2019 and 2020 budgets. Also contributing to the overall $6 million increase is the annual 3% merit raise across departments, as well as a nearly $2 million solid waste budget increase for projects like the new waste transfer system. That substantial chunk is covered in the proposed budget by increasing annual solid waste fees from $115 to $185 — something the commissioners will approve or deny at a public hearing Wednesday, Sept. 4. If the increase is denied, the budget will be adjusted to reflect that loss. Rosedale said that once the budget is adopted, it can be lowered, but not increased.
Ultimately, the ongoing theme over the past three years of county budgeting is for departments to live within their means — but not too far below the means set for them during budget season.
“The commissioners are trying to make sure that we don’t become a cash-hoarding entity at the expense of increasing levy rates,” Rosedale said. “Whatever they do, they’re trying to make sure that we put the money we do have forward to make sure the levy is as low as possible, and that’s how they’re able to take no [property tax] increase [in 2020].”
Bonner County EMS, which budgets separately from all other departments, is anticipating $3.9 million in 2020 expenditures — just over the $3.7 million budgeted in 2019.
The county will hold two hearings before adopting the 2020 budget on Monday, Aug. 26 at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. at the county administration building, 1500 Highway 2, Sandpoint. Review the proposed budget at bonnercountyid.gov/departments/commissioners.
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