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Spirit Lake to revise budget to prioritize police

by JOSA SNOW
Hagadone News Network | August 11, 2023 1:00 AM

The Spirit Lake City Council prioritized funding for a fully staffed police station during a budget workshop last week.

The city's budget for the next fiscal year will not include cost of living adjustments or raises for city staff.

“I think we’re in agreement,” said city council member Kenny Gross. “We want to freeze all of the proposed wage increases.”

The intention of the council is not to raise taxes to fund the budget, but the city is considering increasing the budget by the maximum allowable increase of 3%. With the increase, the city's revenue from property taxes could increase from $591,348 to $613,350, for the total proposed budget of around $5.8 million.

“A tax levy or asking the taxpayer for anything is a non-starter with me,” Gross said. He added later, “We don’t want to add taxes, we don’t want to increase rates.”

A budget draft will likely be tentatively approved at the next city council meeting when the public will be able to review it and provide feedback. That meeting will be 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 8 at the Spirit Lake City Hall, 6042 W. Maine St.

During the workshop, council members made some last-minute tweaks to the numbers to reflect priorities.

“It looks like the police budget keeps getting proposed to be less and less,” Gross said. “I think most of us on this council agree that we want to restore the police department to what it was before we started losing people last fall. Which would mean, at minimum, we carry forward last year's budget.”

The police station only has one of eight positions filled, but the council members hope to fill open positions by next year.

Early drafts of the Spirit Lake 2024 budget cut $140,000 from police wages, but council members directed staff to bring that number back up.

"With the wage increases, vacation payouts and overspending in the expense budget, there is not a significant amount of money left in the PD budget," said city clerk Michelle Wharton.

“We went from this current budget year of $570,000 police wages for the police department down to $430,000,” Councilman Darrell Woods said. “That is a huge cut and we’re trying to rebuild our police department.”

On Tuesday, the total police budget could be presented to residents at $792,000, the same number it was this year, including facilities and wages.

"The police do not have their own checking account and the only money moved was on paper," Wharton said. "If a department loses revenue, then they lose the ability to spend it in expenses."

The budget draft may change after the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office provides a final cost for a contract for services with Spirit Lake while the station is understaffed.

“What needs to happen is we have to have enough funding to pay for the contract with the sheriff for temporary coverage, and we need to budget to hire officers and grow,” Gross said. “We have to fully budget for a fully funded police department.”

The Spirit Lake Police Department is in the final stages of hiring a new police chief, and both the city council and Sheriff Bob Norris would like the police chief candidate, Michael Morlan, to provide feedback on the county contract if his hiring is approved at the next city council meeting.

Gross prioritizes funding the city police department over other city services.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who lives here and pays taxes that doesn’t want policing,” Gross said.

But the city is limited in how funds can be directed.

“It’s not that one thing is more important than the other. You have to fund them all and we need the people to fund it,” Mayor Jeremy Cowperthwaite said. “No money has ever been taken from the police department to do anything anywhere else.”

The budget that will be presented Tuesday should reflect defunding a code enforcement position to supplement the police budget.

“Obviously we need to put this budget out in front of the people, and they need to comment on it,” Gross said. “If they think we should cut further, then I think we should listen to them and see if we can cut further. But I think the important things are that we get the funding back to the police department and allow them to have the funds they need to be able to hire.”