BOISE, Idaho — This story was originally published by Margaret Carmel in BoiseDev.
Ada County budget writers put employees at the top of their mind while crafting the new annual budget.
This week, Ada County Commissioners unanimously approved the roughly $342 million budget for fiscal year 2023. It includes 65 new positions across multiple departments, roughly $14 million in raises for employees, and investment in an expanded facility for the county’s drug court program. These spending hikes were fueled by raising taxes on new construction in the county, county savings, and increased revenue from sales tax, liquor tax, and fees for other services.
It does not increase property tax collections.
County department heads referenced the stresses of rising rents, inflation, gas prices, and the labor shortage on their departments and county employees. Nearly every department head requested increases to employee pay and more positions to help relieve the stress on overworked employees struggling to keep up with the rapidly growing county.
County Clerk Phil McGrane acknowledged this budget is up from last year’s spending, where the county cut taxes $12 million due to the influx of sales tax revenue accrued during the pandemic. He said the pressures of inflation and the need to retain employees meant it was time this year to turn to new revenues to invest in employees instead of continuing to cut the budget.
“Our revenues are up considerably, which is allowing us to absorb a lot, and one of our biggest things we’re using that money for is our employees,” he said.
Big gains for Ada County employees
Each Ada County employee is getting a raise, no matter what department they work in or their pay scale.
Through this budget, all employees received a 5% cost of living raise and an additional dollar per hour on their salary. Pay was increased in these two different methods to assure that Ada County’s lowest paid employees will receive the most significant compensation boost relative to their old wages because they are the most vulnerable to leaving their jobs for other positions or industries.
The budget also included dozens of promotions and other special market adjustments to the pay of certain positions in order to keep them competitive with the rest of the market. These adjustments were done under the advice of the county’s HR manager, who conducted salary research.
The budget also includes, at McGrane’s recommendation, a $500 payment for each county employee in the coming weeks to help offset the burdens of the Treasure Valley’s high gas prices. All three commissioners agreed, noting the importance of helping employees now for retention.
“Our gas prices aren’t going down,” Commissioner Kendra Kenyon said. “They’re going down in other states, but they’re not going down here so as long as it’s just the $500 to get to the end of the fiscal year I am in support.”
Gas prices have decreased $0.30 in the last month in Idaho according to AAA. Prices are $1.16 higher than a year ago.
The budget also included 65 new positions for a cost of $6.5 million across various departments. This includes a third forensic pathologist at the Ada County Coroner’s office, four new deputies to patrol rapidly growing Ada County, new support staff for judges the Idaho Legislature agreed to add to the Fourth District Court and more staff at the Landfill.
New Drug Court location?
One of the biggest items in the county’s budget is $7.5 million for a new clinic to support the county’s drug court program.
This program, which currently operates out of the county’s complex on Benjamin Lane near Boise Towne Square, offers an alternative for felony offenders in Ada County to prison time. Instead of going behind bars, participants in drug court can choose to be closely monitored and participate in programming while they serve their sentence out in the community. The goal of the program is to treat substance abuse and stop the costly cycle of recidivism where people cycle in and out of prison without getting better.
These funds will go toward purchasing and renovating a new building for the clinic, which will allow it to expand and leave the Benjamin complex so it can eventually be renovated and make room for more county operations. The drug court renovation and move is part of the county’s master facilities plan, which is a plan commissioners adopted in 2018 ranking several county infrastructure projects.
The entire project is estimated to cost closer to $10 million, but it will be offset by the sale of property the drug court program currently uses. The county has not yet identified a building to purchase and a definitive timeline for project completion was not mentioned during the budget hearings this year.
The county’s other major capital investment this budget cycle includes $5 million for a new financial system.
Community members press county for action on homelessness
On Tuesday, four members of the public came out to testify on the budget proposal in the hopes of more investment in affordable housing and homelessness prevention programs.
The members of the audience all spoke in favor of the county appropriating more of its $90 million American Rescue Plan Act funds from the most recent federal COVID-19 relief package toward housing programs. They urged using the funds to create affordable units and bolster the bottom lines of local nonprofits like eviction prevention nonprofit Jesse Tree and Catch after other federal assistance runs out in the next year.
“We have lots of people with feet on the ground,” Denise Caruzzi, president of the Boise/Ada County Homeless Coalition said. “It will save us future dollars and will mitigate future problems. I ask you to act swiftly and find reliable community partners who can use this money effectively. It’s essential that it goes to the welfare of Ada County residents instead of sending it out of state for other residents to use.”
Unlike the city of Boise, which brought its ARPA funds into the city budget, Ada County has been appropriating its funds through the program in separate resolutions. The county is still sifting through project proposals and has already used some of the funds for items like removing the aging horse stables at the Expo Idaho site, Boise River Greenbelt repairs, and signing and retention bonuses to drug court counselors.
Ada County opted in 2021 to stop funding the supportive services at the New Path Community Housing Housing First project on Fairview Avenue due to concerns about the model. The program services 49 residents, allows people to live in the building without any sobriety requirements, and has optional supportive services in accordance with national practices for assisting the chronically homeless.
Instead, commissioners voted to spend taxpayer dollars by donating to Terry Reilly Health Services to increase access for all low-income Ada County residents, not just those who live in New Path. Commissioners have floated the possibility of collaborating with the City of Boise and the Boise City Ada County Housing Authority to build long-term transitional housing for people exiting the county’s detox facility, Allumbaugh House, but there are no solid details on the proposal available to the public yet.
Commissioner Rod Beck said his travels to Los Angeles, and Portland drove home the importance of addressing homelessness.
“The homelessness that exists in these cities is a tragic human problem, and we are going to do the best we can to the degree we have the responsibility to address that, and we will continue to look at it closely,” Beck said, in response to the testimony.