By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Sticker shock is a natural reaction upon first seeing the proposed Bonner County budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which features a jump from $62 million in FY 2022 to just over $81 million in FY 2023.
However, there is more to that nearly $19 million increase than meets the eye, with two sizable sums amounting to nearly the entire spike: the voter-approved $8.7 million USDA loan required to kickstart the Bonner County Solid Waste 10-Year Capital Improvements Plan, and almost $9 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated across various departments.
Most important, according to Bonner County Clerk Mike Rosedale, is that the county is only opting to take its statutorily allotted annual 3% property tax increase, as well as taxes on new construction, adding up to an average tax increase of 3% across the board for county taxpayers.
“Now, your house may have gone up by 5% and my house may have gone up by 2%, but on the average, across Bonner County, they actually went up by a little less than 3%,” Rosedale told the Reader.
Despite what Rosedale called “monster assessed value climbs” that many local property owners are currently facing, the story of the proposed FY 2023 Bonner County budget is not one of exorbitant tax increases.
“That being said, there are a lot of interesting things in the budget to talk about,” he said.
Solid waste to launch 10-year plan with $8.7 million USDA loan
Bonner County Solid Waste will see a total budget increase from about $8 million to $14.5 million in the coming fiscal year, thanks largely to a USDA loan approved on the May 2021 ballot through a special revenue bond vote. The county will pay back the $8.7 million loan with solid waste fees, which commissioners increased by 62% — from an annual fee of $115 to $185 — in 2019 in anticipation of the large debt.
“That is not a tax, because we all pay for our solid waste fees already,” Rosedale said. “That’s not something that has any relationship to your property value.”
The loan was an integral step in launching the Bonner County Solid Waste 10-Year Capital Improvements Plan, which is an effort to bring local waste collection infrastructure into the current century and capable of handling the demands of a rapidly increasing population. The bulk of the loan will go toward an overhaul of the Colburn waste transfer station — which features an undersized and nearly three-decade-old tipping floor — as well as upgrades to three other waste collection sites: Idaho Hill, Dickensheet and Dufort.
“We don’t have the funds in yet, but we will, so that’s anticipated to be in [the upcoming budget],” Rosedale said of the USDA loan. “The way the county budget works is, you have to put it into the budget in order to spend it.”
ARPA provides an $8.8 million boost
After a year-long debate over whether Bonner County would utilize its share of stimulus funds provided through the federal American Rescue Plan Act, county officials are allocating the money to various departments in the FY 2023 budget.
While opponents to spending the ARPA funds alleged that such an action would obligate the county to adhere to future federal mandates regarding masking or vaccination, an opinion issued by the Prosecutor’s Office in February stated that the county would most likely not be subject to such conditions.
“There’s nothing uniquely onerous about [ARPA], according to the prosecutor’s legal memorandum on that,” Rosedale said.
County Comptroller Nancy Twineham told the Reader that about $8.843 million of Bonner County’s allotted ARPA dollars are being allocated in 2023 “mostly [to] the General Fund, EMS and a small portion into the Justice Fund to cover IT projects that are [allowed] under the U.S. Treasury guidelines.”
“We are using the money that we can use from ARPA to buy critical infrastructure technology for both the 911 [and] Justice side, and the General side. Then we’re using the rest for revenue replacement, which is also allowed,” Rosdale said, adding later: “You can’t pay off debt with that money, you can’t refund a shortfall in PERSI with that money, you can’t pay off judgments with that money.
“There are some things you can’t do, but you can add it as revenue replacement for salaries,” he said.
The county is allowed to accrue interest on its unspent ARPA balance, Twineham said, which amounts to “a couple grand” after the allocation across departments for the FY 2023 budget.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Bonner County’s total ARPA fund totals $8,884,265.
Competitive wages and combatting fuel costs
Because ARPA will be used to fund one-time projects and salary replacement, the roughly 3% tax increase will be largely leveraged to offset inflation. While the national inflation rate currently stands at about 9%, Rosedale said, “In North Idaho, I think everyone here would agree that it’s closer to 18-20%” when looking at everything from food costs to real estate.
“The prices are going up, all the costs are going up,” he said, “and it is more and more difficult for people to make it here.”
To combat this, at least in part, Bonner County employees will see a 5% “cost of living” raise in the coming fiscal year, with some positions receiving even more of an increase in an effort to retain talent.
Rosedale said that many positions, including sheriff’s office personnel and specially licenced Road and Bridge operators, are being pulled to neighboring states where wages are better and the cost of living is lower.
“They can make almost twice as much money just going into Spokane,” he said, “so there’s a real problem.”
Out of about 400 positions, Rosedale said there were up to 35 vacancies that the county “couldn’t fill” over the past year.
“We had certain jobs that were at a critical life-or-death [point] where we were losing them and we can’t replace them,” Rosedale said, noting that many county positions pay roughly the same as jobs at local fast food or grocery chains, requiring Bonner County to move toward offering more competitive wages to keep certain positions filled.
On top of that, Rosedale said “compression” happens when the county raises starting wages to attract new personnel, then faces pressure from current employees to raise their wages in tandem.
“That was one thing we had to try to address,” he added.
Some funds will increase in 2023 in order to cover the steep rise in fuel costs that several departments — namely Road and Bridge and the sheriff’s department — are currently facing. Materials like steel, required for Road and Bridge projects, also saw a considerable increase in cost over the past year, Rosedale said.
Hearings to be held Aug. 22
There will be two public hearings regarding the proposed FY 2023 budget on Monday, Aug. 22 at both 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. at the Bonner County Administration Building, located at 1500 Highway 2 in Sandpoint. Public comment will be heard at both meetings, and commissioners will entertain a vote to adopt the budget at the evening meeting.
The proposed budget is available to view online at bonnercountyid.gov/commissioners. Scroll past the photos of the commissioners to reach the blue link titled “Bonner County FY2023 Proposed Budget.”
Those with questions about the budget can reach the county clerk’s office at 208-265-1437. Those with questions about the Aug. 22 budget hearings can reach the commissioners office at 208-265-1438.
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