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Grappling with population, development and costs, the Kootenai County commissioners painted a picture Tuesday of a community that is changing forever.
Recounting 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic as one of the "most trying periods in our history as a nation," Commissioner Chris Fillios thanked the community Tuesday morning during the Coeur d'Alene Regional Chamber of Commerce 2021 State of the County discussion.
Despite tackling the challenges of the novel coronavirus, Fillios noted another force dramatically swept the county — growth.
In the last decade, from 2009 to 2019, Kootenai County's population has increased from 139,390 to 165,697.
"We've been growing, needless to say, at a very rapid rate, and that's probably the key challenge confronting this county," Fillios said.
Residential building permits are just one of many indicators that prove the area is expanding faster than any year prior. In 2010, the county reported 1,479 residential building permit applications submitted to the county community development office. In 2020 the department reached a permit record of 3,228.
"We have more than doubled the number of permits that we're issuing over a 10-year period," Fillios said. "That really speaks to the level of growth we've been experiencing."
The rise continues. According to Fillios, there have been 324 residential building permits since Jan. 1 this year — a 61 percent increase over the 201 permits to date last year. The uptick has caused difficulties in the real estate and building community, Fillios said. It has also affected the community development department from a typical three-week turnaround to three months.
Commissioner Bill Brooks, liaison to the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office, praised newly elected Sheriff Bob Norris and his team. However, much like other departments at the county, KCSO's wages present a barrier to finding and retaining employees, Brooks said.
"We tried very hard last year to start to get some parity with the other law enforcement agencies in the area because, for a time, we were actually losing some of our deputies to local law enforcement agencies," Brooks said. "These days, a deputy starts at about $25,000 a year, plus attractive benefits, but you can't pay your mortgage with a benefit."
Describing the COVID-19 revolution that has changed how and where people work, Brooks touched on the county's $20 million plan to build a new justice building.
"People who never thought they could work from home to do their job are working from home and doing a very good job," Brooks said. "Our space needs have changed radically … We need first to determine that specifically and then come up with a plan because the plan is going to cost money."
The building aims to provide designated space for justice services, public defenders, prosecutors, clerks, and other legal professionals now spread out in six separate buildings in five different locations.
Since 2015, the public defender's office has grown from 35 people to 59. Prosecuting attorney staff have split into four buildings, and three judges now work in makeshift basement offices, Commissioner Leslie Duncan explained.
"A few years ago when I spoke here, I talked about the population growth (of the county) being somewhere around 2.5% to 3%, but our justice services were growing at 6%," Duncan said. "It's not just serving Kootenai County or the five northern counties. It's also dealing with out-of-state people and having different laws right across the border."
In previous meetings, the commissioners have discussed a price tag of $20 million and various funding options like a general bond vote, lease, and using forgone taxes. Brooks argued that the project shouldn't cost more than $18 million and that the recently purchased Kootenai Electric Building — now named Kootenai North — could relocate staff. However, the project has been put on hold until the Legislature adjourns.
"Frankly, America is built on a strong justice system because if we're not protecting the rights of the innocent, then really what are we doing that directly affects the quality of life?" Duncan said.
Other accomplishments the commissioners mentioned:
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