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County commissioner candidates weigh-in on issues

Four Republicans candidates are running for Lake County Commissioner for District #2. Since there are no other opponents, the primary election on June 8 will decide their race.

The candidates are Roy Anderson, Ann Smith Brower, Ron Merwin and Paul Tryon

The candidates were asked for their solution to the overcrowding of Lake County Courthouse. 

“I know more of the complexities,” Anderson said, “than of any available would-be solutions, to the crowding problems of the courthouse and the jail.” 

Anderson went on to say that the campus where the courthouse sits is small and makes adding on and refurbishing difficult if not impractical. 

“Do we build new on this site or find another? Maybe more importantly, are the tax-payers willing to foot the bill?” Anderson added. “… To pretend I have the intellect and information available to lay out any kind of comprehensive plan to the public, about a solution to our out-dated courthouse and jail facilities, would be impractical.”

Lake County has moved some of the Lake County Sheriff Office to the old Office of Emergency Management, Brower said. She also said the county Computer Services Department would be moving to a nearby location. A committee meets quarterly and looks at the continued need for jail space and courtrooms.

Brower said information gathered from neighboring counties about how they dealt with overcrowding would be a helpful planning tool.  

“Planning for the future is key,” Brower explained.

Ron Merwin said he didn’t necessarily agree with the presupposition. 

“Even if the courthouse was twice the size, would government try to expand to it?” Merwin said.  

Merwin brought up the judicial/law enforcement center, which has been previously suggested. 

Merwin said the judicial/law enforcement center is “probably the long-term solution, but that will create a tax burden that the voters will have to decide if they are willing to take on.” 

Candidate Paul Tryon said three areas need evaluation in regard to the overcrowding of the courthouse. 

“First of all,” Tryon said, “the number of employees working for the county needs to be evaluated in regard to both space and budget.”

Tryon explained that he does not think any current positions need to be eliminated. But before any more positions are created, Tryon said Lake County “needs to strongly consider whether or not new positions are necessary, fit within the budget and can be properly accommodated.”

Second Tryon said the county needs to eliminate “double offices,” which occur when county employees work for departments not located in the courthouse but have office space in the building as well as in their department’s location.

Finally the county should look at moving departments out of the courthouse to accommodate any further space needs, Tryon said. 

“It makes sense to leave the courts, police, and commissioners in the courthouse. But there are departments that could easily move and still function efficiently,” Tryon said.

The candidates were also asked if Lake County Jail is a suitable place to incarcerate prisons and how jail conditions could be improved without raising taxes.

Brower cited recent improvements to the water heating, flooring and heating and cooling systems in LCJ. She also said detention officer training and LCSO contracts with doctors for the mental and physical needs of patients are just some of the ways LCJ meets the required standards. 

“Some ways of funding improved jail conditions can include the option of a booking fee or for future detentions: room and board. Working with the sheriff to meet requirements and analyze needs will be vital,” Brower said.

Merwin said, “Suitable for who?”

He added those who are incarcerated probably have better conditions than a lot of the citizens who are struggling. 

LCJ employees are under stress “because of the nature of their service,” Merwin said. “I will work closely with the sheriff’s office in planning of budgets as well as support of the department employees.”

Merwin also mentioned the long-term solution of a judicial/law enforcement center.

Tryon agreed that LCJ is a suitable place to incarcerate prisoners although he said the need to maintain and/or improve conditions of the facility is constant. Tryon said improving conditions without raising taxes could be accomplished by grants and other outside funding sources. 

“Acquiring grants and other outside funds allows operations to continue and frees up general funds to meet facility needs,” Tryon added.

Anderson said he is convinced a way can be found to deal with overcrowding of the jail and the courthouse. It will take the creative input and support of the county community as well as elected and professional personnel.

Another question asked the candidates how they would manage roads in Lake County if elected, with or without the passage of the road levy. 

Merwin said the county pays a road supervisor and leadmen. Their job is to manage the equipment and supervise the operator/drivers and mechanics. 

If he’s elected, Merwin said, “I will monitor performance, audit the budget and hold accountable those charged with management of the county roads.”

If the voters pass the levy to purchase more equipment, Merwin said conditions would improve somewhat. The equipment will still have to be serviced, maintained and utilized efficiently, and operators trained to maximize the return on the budgeted dollar. He also said the budget should be made with long-term planning so a special levy isn’t necessary.

“Improved and continued management of the roads can be accomplished without a road levy by re-evaluating the budget and prioritizing services,” Tryon said. “ … This will require more time and will limit the improvements that can be made.”

Levy funds would allow the road department to focus beyond maintenance and allow for the purchase of equipments and materials.

“In the end, it is up to the taxpayers to decide whether they want to improve roads or increase funding to provide for improvements” Tryon explained. 

Tryon added that the road department budget today is essentially equal to the budget ten years ago. Inflation has increased at a much greater rate. 

“As the costs of fuel, materials and equipment rise, it becomes increasingly prohibitive to not only maintain roads but to provide for any improvements,” Tryon said. 

The voters will vote June 8 for or against the road levy. 

“By passing it, they (the voters) tell the county to step up and improve and maintain a higher level of road infrastructure,” Anderson said.

If the levy does not pass, the county roads department will maintain roads with what we have, 

Anderson said, and “very likely” will return some ship-sealed roads to gravel. 

“The county has a very capable road crew; they do a good job of putting every dollar into road maintenance,” Anderson added.

A lack of adequate funding makes it very difficult to have smooth surfaces throughout the county, Brower said. 

Brower said until additional funds become available, “there are steps we can take to ensure that we are doing the best job possible.” One step is continual training on updated improvement/maintenance methods. 

“Maintaining, reviewing and planning from daily logs can provide a proactive approach to consistent problems,” Brower said.

Brower explained that if the levy passes, it will provide increased funding for equipment and maintenance, but proper training and planning will be necessary regardless of the outcome of the requested levy.

The candidates were asked what they felt was an important issue facing Lake County. 

Tryon said the budget is a huge issue facing Lake County. Costs continue to rise, but the county faces losses in the tax base due to the current economy. When businesses, such as Plum Creek, shut down, the county suffers, people suffer from loss of income and local businesses lose business “resulting in individuals and businesses moving out of the area,” Tryon explained.

First, Tryon said, the county needs to work hard to support local businesses and help sustain the local economy.

Second, the county needs to take proactive steps to secure funds from grants and other available sources. Many state grants are tax dollars distributed though the state to provide services to the taxpayers.

“… The only way to obtain the money and return it to the local area is to ask for it back through the grant process,” Tryon added.

Third, current budgets need to be evaluated and adjusted to ensure funds are allocated in the most effective and efficient manner to meet county needs, Tryon said, planning not only for the upcoming year but also for the future.

“Finally, the county must commit to positive working relationships with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the state and other entities for the betterment of all Lake County residents,” Tryon said. “By pooling resources and working together, everyone benefits …”

Anderson said, “Surely the people we elect and send to Helena can help us get a more equitable disbursement of funds to maintain our county — this is one of the more serious issues we face as a county.”

Many issues face Lake County today, Brower said, ranging from zoning to animal control. From discussion with Lake County residents, Brower said it seems everyone agrees that a proactive approach to every issue is necessary as well as strategy and planning. 

A proactive approach to aquatic invaders, working toward facilitation with property issues, expectations for personnel and public involvement are all issues. 

“I do not feel a commissioner should have one agenda item when representing so many,” Brower explained.

“One issue is the protection of property rights,” Merwin said. “The county growth policy, including the subdivision and density mapping plan, needs to be managed as a tool and a reference. Subjective interpretation and non-uniform application has to be protected against.”

Merwin added that he would monitor and personally review those decisions that result in conflict to insure that property rights are maintained. 

In another area, Merwin said he would work with state legislators to keep taxes under control.

Please vote on June 8 or stop at the Lake County Election Office to get an absentee ballot.

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