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ARPA money helps county commissioners pass balanced budget

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
The Western News | September 12, 2023 7:00 AM

The Lincoln County Commissioners passed a $14.3 million budget for fiscal year 2024 at last week’s meeting with property taxes increasing.

For homes valued at $100,000, their property taxes will increase $100.01. For a home worth $300,000, the increase is $300.02 and for a home valued at $600,000, it’s $600.05.

The commissioners had to use the last of the American Recovery Plan Act money - $800,000 - it had to help get to a balanced budget. Other cuts included about $191,000 from the sheriff’s office budget and $17,000 from the library.

The sheriff’s office won’t be getting two new vehicles that it had hoped for next year. The money for that was a big chunk of its cuts. The department is getting two new vehicles in the near future, according to Sheriff Darren Short.

The vehicles were ordered in October 2022, but their delivery has been slowed by continued supply chain issues that began during the Covid pandemic.

The sheriff’s office also had to add a sixth full-time dispatcher after absorbing the Troy Dispatch District when it ceased to function in July.

Rising salary and insurance costs for county employees and decreasing money from timber and mining receipts left the county looking for a way to make up a $1.6 million shortfall, according to District 1 Commissioner Brent Teske.

“The depletion of mining and timber receipts is killing this county,” Teske said at a Aug. 28 meeting. “Despite all the people moving here and property values going up, the increased costs of wages and benefits have left us where we can’t do anything about it.”

Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Chad Benson reported at last week’s Sept. 6 meeting that a record-low five million board feet were harvested from the forest in 2023. According to a 2014 story in The Western News, the forest harvest in 2012 was 24 million board feet. In the 1980s, board feet harvests often topped 200 million board feet.

He said lawsuits the last few years and the resulting decisions by federal judges were to blame, but was hopeful the forest would provide 15 million board feet of lumber in 2024.

“We used to get $8 million from timber harvest and now we can’t even meet our budget,” Letcher said.

In June, the commissioners approved a 5% cost of living increase for county workers to keep up with the cost of inflation and for retention of its employees. A 7% increase in insurance rates also was another main source of increased costs for the county.

While property values increased, the state reduced the number of mills the county is allowed to charge from 99 in 2022 to 74 this year, according to District 3 Commissioner Josh Letcher. Because the mills were worth more, about $60,000 each, tax revenue increased.

But the wage and insurance costs exceeded the gains from property value increases.

Letcher also said the depletion of the road fund to help pay for other things has now left it where it can’t be used to help balance the budget.

The county also used some money from the Local Assistance and Tribal Consistency Fund to help balance the budget. ARPA allocated $2 billion to the fund to provide additional resources to help tribal governments and revenue-sharing counties recover from the public health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

A revenue-sharing county has a direct fiscal relationship with public lands and public resources.