NPC freezes sheriff’s salary, pulls funding for two organizations

Douglas Zenner

Commissioners took two unusual steps while setting the 2020 Nez Perce County budget this week: freezing the sheriff’s salary at its current level and pulling long-standing annual funding from two local economic development agencies.

The move to cap Sheriff Joe Rodriguez’s salary was in response to the increased cost of liability insurance because of four potential employee complaints against the sheriff, commission Chairman Douglas Zenner said. The Idaho Counties Risk Management Program had threatened to cancel its coverage over the complaints, but the county reached an agreement to pay higher deductibles late last month.

“He’s giving that up to help offset the costs,” Zenner said of Rodriguez not getting the 2.1 percent cost of living adjustment all other county employees got in the final budget.

Rodriguez’s current annual salary is $93,038.40. His cost of living increase will be kept aside to assist with covering those increased deductibles, as will $75,000 he requested for two new patrol vehicles. Some or all of the funds will be released for their original intended purposes if some or all of the complaints don’t materialize by the 2021 budget year, Zenner said.

Commissioners Douglas Havens and Don Beck also joined Zenner to pull $32,000 from Valley Vision and almost $12,000 from the Clearwater Economic Development Association. Instead, the county will direct the funds to the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport to help pay for a $100,000 project to build a new taxiway to serve the airport’s southside business park.

Zenner said the taxiway is necessary to help lure the construction of as many as eight new private hangars on the site. A lack of proper infrastructure at the business park has been cited as one of the barriers that has kept development from taking off there.

“We are assisting the airport in getting that development started,” Zenner said, noting that the city of Lewiston declined to offer any funding for that purpose. “We funded it because it is a project that is worth funding. We have this project that we can get an immediate return on. It is a good economic development project.”

The economic development funding will probably be restored next year, he added. The commissioners also redirected $6,000 from the county’s information technology department toward the taxiway project since grant funding is available to backfill the hole in the IT budget.

Valley Vision President Karl Dye said the decision came as a complete surprise.

“We went through one budget workshop with the commissioners, had multiple conversations with all three commissioners and we thought that we would have the same budget allocation that we had last year,” Dye said, noting that the $32,000 is a significant portion of the agency’s budget. “We’ve got 23 years under our belts now, and we’ve weathered bigger storms than this. But we’re disappointed.”

The decrease in funding will probably come out of Valley Vision’s marketing and promotions budget. Dye said that will have a negative impact on its ability to attract outside companies to the area.

Zenner, who was on the Valley Vision board, resigned that position since those on the board are supposed to be Valley Vision participants.

CEDA Executive Director Christine Frei said losing the $12,000 was devastating news, and not just from a funding perspective. Like Valley Vision, a seat on the CEDA board requires participating organizations to make financial contributions, and now Nez Perce County won’t have a seat at the table.

“What’s more important is that relationship, and this is taking out an important stakeholder in regional development,” Frei said, noting that one of her agency’s most important issues is workforce development. “It’s about more than the money. Not having Nez Perce County funding and leadership is a big hit for the region, no question.”

She said CEDA typically uses the county contribution for local matches to grants and small-business loans that have helped get more than 75 projects off the ground.

The county’s total contribution to the airport for 2020 is $631,000, up from $224,000 last year. The city and the county jointly own the airport, and airport officials have been pleading for extra funding this year to pay for several initiatives and make up for revenues lost when Horizon Air left the facility last year.

Zenner said the 2020 budget also includes a new program to provide bonuses to employees for successfully completing projects that save the county money or make operations more efficient. The money for that program will come from funding that was initially proposed for across-the-board cost of living wage increases. An initial proposal put that increase at 4.3 percent, Zenner said. But it was reduced to 2.1 percent and some of the difference will go into the bonus program.

Commissioners also raised property taxes by the maximum 3 percent allowed by state law. According to estimates based on the most recent property value data available, the increase will actually result in a decrease of 43 cents per $100,000 of taxable assessed value because of about $130 million of market value added to the tax base this year, according to Clerk-Auditor Patty O. Weeks.

The final 2020 county budget is $43,504,459, a $675,000 decrease over last year since the county has retired the bonds that were used to build the county jail in North Lewiston.

Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2266.

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