Six Months In

Sworn In…

Sworn In…

It is June. My first goal for June was to be done coughing from the crud I managed to catch in mid May. I haven’t reached that goal completely, but I can honestly say that I have hit 80%. June marks 6 months since I have officially been at this commissioner thing. I was told it takes a full year or even two to really learn the job. I was skeptical. I spent a lot of time at the courthouse during my campaign. Now, 6 months in, I have learned that I have so much more to learn. I have learned a few things though, and one of them is to set more realistic goals. 80% is not such a bad mark to shoot for.

I have learned just how much time, energy, and money it takes to simply run the county government. Latah County values its employees and the previous and current commissioners have done everything they can to assure they are fairly compensated. This includes salary surveys, cost of living adjustments, and a decent benefit package. We listen to every department’s budget requests, and over the next few months will determine the percentage of salary increase balanced against new employees for growing departments or tools and space to complete their jobs. Quiz question for you: “With the public safety department (Sheriff's office) being the largest section of the county budget, what is the second?”

The largest share of the county budget is your and my property taxes. The assessors office determines a value for our land based on fair market value. We as commissioners, become a board of equalization to assure that we are all valued fairly in comparison with our neighbors with like property. Latah County can collect a set amount of property tax for the whole county per year. This can, and usually does, go up at a rate of 3% a year. The valuation of all property may go up, but because of this 3% cap, the amount of tax that can be levied per 100K of value may actually drop. I know, this is as clear as mud. But my taxes actually dropped by two hundred dollars this year as a result of revaluation. Quiz question #2: “How did your tax levy rate change in this year’s assessment notice?”

On a population scale of small, medium, large, and extra large, Latah County is considered a large county. Unique to other large counties, we have a large chunk of tax exempt properties. Gritman Medical Center and most of its properties are exempt. The UI and all the associated fraternities, sororities, and grounds are exempt land. Smaller counties with large swaths of public land receive federal dollars in lieu of property taxes. There is no such break for large chunks of tax exempt land. We just have to make do with less. Quiz question #3: “Which county is slightly larger than us in population that we will likely pass by after the 2020 census?”

While some of you may find all of this tedious, I find it fascinating. I have learned a few other small things as well:

  1. I need to read everything that is going to show up on my desk during a public meeting prior to that public meeting. I swim on Mondays and Wednesdays. I get to the office no later than 7 am. This gives me 2 hours before meeting time. It is usually enough time.

  2. I have a basement office and we meet in a basement conference room. My office has a window that looks out at the side of the generator shed. I have exactly 2 weeks each year that natural light hits my window. I will be taking vitamin D during the summer months as well this year and I need to get outside anytime there is a 10 minute break in meetings.

  3. When campaigning, I could raise money and use it to attend fundraisers and community functions and write off the extra mileage as a campaign expense. On my ¾ time salary, I pay for anything I attend that happens in the off hours, includes alcohol, or isn’t directly related to county business or training. I joke that they pay us just so we can pour it back into the community. I am surprisingly okay with this. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to being a philanthropist.

  4. I am going to have to start being pickier about what I attend and why. All three of us have jobs outside of being a commissioner, and we have to divide and conquer. I really like Tom and Dave, and enjoy their company immensely. But, there is only so much of us to go around.

  5. I need to swim, run, ride my bike, or ski on a regular basis to stay sane. I need to spend time with Greg and the horses just as frequently to stay married. I have to go someplace like a river canyon where I have no cell phone access for at least a week per year to remind myself what it means to be a human being rather than a human doing.

Shooting for 80% means that one of the above didn’t happen this week. Quiz question #4: “Which of the above got short shifted?”

Writing as a Commissioner

I have officially been your county commissioner for a little over two months. I run into folks in town at coffee shops, in yoga classes, and at fundraisers. The questions are always, “How is it going?” “How do you like your new job?” I generally answer, “Fine!” “I like it!” “Latah County is a great place to work.” All of this is true. The other answer is that it is hard. It was easier two months ago because I did not know what I did not know. Now, I know. There is a lot to learn.

Writing has always been a great outlet for me. I enjoy researching a topic, reading what others have to say, relating it to my own life, and then producing a story. In the process, because I write publicly, I hope there are kernels that ring true for other people.

The reading that is required for this job is not really the type that fosters creative thought. I am not reading blog posts and opinion articles. I am reading bill texts at the state level, building code, tax exemption statutes, and legal briefs so I understand the history behind a decision that needs to be made that day. I am a geek, so I find it very interesting, but it is not something that stirs my creativity.

In the role of county commissioner, there is little actual writing as part of my day to day work. There are proclamations for things like Idaho Day that we get to read out loud, and there are multiple motions in any one given day. These are typed out ahead of time, and we read them verbatim. I scribble notes on the sides of my agendas, but these are mostly so I can remember what we talked about at 9:15am by the time we finally adjourn at 2:00pm and I don’t forget anything I promised to do.

The exception to this is when I get an email from someone who wants to engage on a topic of interest to them. These are not the emails with twenty attachments including the bylaws of their non-profit and their recent financial statements. There is generally a personal story along with the reasons they are interested in the topic, and then the dialogue begins.

This week, there will be many of us writing to our Idaho legislators and governor. It is tempting to let someone else compose the text and just sign off on it. It is easy to check a box on an online petition. It is much more difficult to pull the personal stories, put those into text or a phone call, and hope there are kernels that ring true. I know many of us are on “hope burnout.” I am pleading with you to not give up. Share your personal stories and let the dialogue begin.

The First Week

Swearing In.JPG

I’ve completed my first week as Latah County Commissioner. I’ve had a lot of folks ask me how it is going, others that want to know what my schedule looks like now. Now that I have finally had a good night’s sleep, I figured it was time to share. Just the basics: Latah County Commissioners are 3/4 time employees with benefits. As a board, we decide upon a Chair, and we set our schedule. We meet on Mondays and Wednesdays in Room 2B at the courthouse or in the annex every week we are in town, but not on Federal Holidays. We all have outside commissions and committees. We each have an office across the hallway in the basement of the courthouse. And, we all have 2nd jobs.

So, what did we do this week?

I got sworn in on Monday along with all of the other newly elected officials. We ate cheese and crackers and vegetables. We decided to keep Tom as our chair for his institutional knowledge and his ability to run efficient meetings. We divided up committee assignments. I will be serving on the Behavioral Health Board which meets monthly in Lewiston. I will be on the Board of Community Guardians and be the commissioner liaison to the Compensation Committee, the Fair Board, and Parks and Recreation Board. I will be the county presence on the Moscow Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and Partnership for Economic Prosperity. Being new, I got the lightest load of outside commitments.

On Wednesday, we decided on three indigent fund requests, approved a smattering of liquor licenses, looked at the plans for the McConnell Mansion re-roofing project, learned more about Opportunity Zone designations, and approved paying of the week’s bills. It was a light day, so I spent the rest of the day learning the computer and phone systems in my office and started going through binders and files that date back through the early 1990’s. I had building and grounds stop by and help me move my desk so I, rather than my computer screen, face the door and I watered the plants that Dick Walser left me. We also attended a regional breakfast and the Chamber of Commerce lunch.

On Tuesday and Thursday, I worked my other jobs but made sure I had time to get to the yoga class that just did not happen in the latter part of my campaign. On Friday, I met with a few folks whose departments I wanted to know more about, and went through yet more files. I still have one file drawer to go.

I learned very early on in my job as an itinerant physical therapist serving multiple school districts and buildings who the most important folks to get to know were. While it was imperiative that I have a good relationship with principals, teachers, and parents, they had little effect on my day to day work. If I wanted to find out answers to the who, what, where questions, the administrative assistant held all of those, and mostly in his/her head. If I needed a tool, or I needed a different desk for a kid, or a room rearranged, the custodial staff were my best friends. Working for the County is really no different. The BOCC clerk has been there longer than any commissioner, and if she doesn’t have an answer to my question, she knows who does. The building and grounds and IT staff have been key in helping me to settle in.

So, that was my first week. Busy, but not nearly as busy as the time frame of my life when I was working multiple jobs and raising two active kids. I have an office space in town where I can read, reset, and even relax a bit. I am going to like working for Latah County. But, I’m also glad that Monday is a federal holiday!

Goodbye 2018, Hello 2019

The campaign is over. I won. As I go through the holidays and meet up with friends old and new, there is time to share what is going on in life. Many of them are retiring. Ten years ago, that was my plan, too. Retire in my late 50’s. Take Fall river trips. Go backcountry skiing in Spring when the days are longer and the nights a little more mild. Summer backpacking trips and lazy days in the garden. Time to visit my kids, and time to read books. Instead, I am embarking on a new career. I just accepted a job that is full time plus. I couldn’t be more thrilled, more humbled…and, yes, a little nervous. The kind folks of Latah County are trusting me to do my best in this role. It is not a responsibility I take lightly.

2018 was a long year. Campaigns as a first time candidate are grueling. Fundraising letters and their associated thank you notes and bookkeeping. Designing signs and composing radio ads. Campaign parties and stump speeches. Forums where very complex questions need to be answered in two minutes or less. And for me, I felt it was important to meet with as many folks at the courthouse as I could. To find out about their jobs, what they do and what they feel is important. I attended as many commissioner meetings as my work schedule would allow. There were events. So many events. Many of them on the same night. All offering food and drink. Parades and community days. City council meetings. And then there was door knocking, sometimes instead of an event, sometimes in combination. What this meant, practically, is over 10,000 miles on the red truck. It meant getting up at 4:30 am to swim or run, and then not dropping into bed before 10:00 pm most nights. Weekends were more packed than weekdays. It meant juggling the time taken to create and eat a good meal versus yet one more thing I could or should be doing. When campaigning, there is always the feeling that it is not quite enough.

2018 was a tough year. I lost a really good friend and rafting buddy to a rapidly progressive brain disease. My mom, who was diagnosed with leukemia right at the time I decided to run for Commissioner, required increasing amounts of my time, homecare and hospice, and finally died with me by her side on September 11. My kids are increasingly busy with their own lives, and connecting with them has to be much more intentional as their time is limited as well. Running many miles to blow off steam and stress was no longer an option as my knees screamed at me in protest. Navigating a relatively new relationship in our 50’s is never an easy endeavor, and the campaign time commitments did not make that any easier.

2018 was a good year. After either being in school or working a summer job to pay for it, Jasper finally had enough time to make it home for a summer river trip. He’s got a great lady in his life that was gusty enough to come and meet me on her own when her work brought her to Idaho. A summer wedding in Montana was close enough for me to slip down to Salmon for a few days and see my grandpup and spend a day on the water with Emerald. My running buddies adapted our route so I could join them. Truer friends could not be found. I’m still in love with my husband. I was elected County Commissioner! A required trip to Boise was extended to allow for reconnecting with old friends, a sweet music night, and enough time on the road to actually get through an entire audio book. My chickens were laying machines, the grapes we planted three years ago finally produced, and we cleared enough understory to plant trees this Spring. The whole family made it to Santa Barbara to spread my mom’s ashes with her sister. The Christmas holidays were quiet. I’ve been working on my sourdough bread recipe. I had my own private Christmas Eve service in our woods with a fire. I finally had enough time and space to cry hard for the loss of my mom. And I slept. Nine hours a night, for many nights in a row.

It is now 2019. I will swear in on January 14, exact time not yet known. I am humbled and honored that you have chosen me for this position. I promise to listen to you, help when I can, and to not be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” In order for me to listen, you must continue to talk to me. To find out what is happening, you can “like” the Latah County Facebook page. You can also get an email subscription to the Commissioner’s agendas and minutes. Looking forward to an exciting 2019.

Door Knocking

Last weekend, a good friend of mine and I went down to Juliaetta and knocked on roughly eighty doors in Juliaetta, ID. I have been to their elementary school, and navigated the maze of sidewalks and lights to attend their city council meeting. I also celebrated my birthday down there last Spring at Colters Creek Winery. This was my first real dip into their neighborhoods, however. My job as an early intervention physical therapist takes me into all the small towns in Latah County, but about ten years ago, our region decided that Juliaetta and Kendrick should be served out of the Lewiston office. It was a more efficient use of resources, and Latah County picked up Plummer from the region to the north. Juliaetta has hills. Steep ones. It also has not yet benefited from the county’s push to get blue address signs marking each home or driveway. Houses were hard to find. I resorted to knocking on doors, and then asking the people inside what their address was.

When I started this campaign, I dreaded door knocking. As a kid, I was required to sell Girl Scout cookies. In those days, you could not set up a booth at the grocery store, nor could you camp out next to the pot shop in WA. You went door to door. Parents did not go with, or at least my mom who was a Brownie leader, refused to. She believed scouts should earn their badges without parental assistance. I flunked this badge miserably. I was painfully shy as a kid, and shorter than most folks’ windows in their storm doors. I knocked softly, prayed they weren’t home. Half the time, if they answered, they could not see me, so would quickly close the door. I never spoke up. I sold no cookies. The next year I decided to give up scouts and became a springboard diver which took all my free time. Being shy and quiet was not an impediment, it made me more coachable. I was a good listener.

Surprisingly, door knocking has been my favorite part of running for county commissioner. I still get a little nervous at each door, sometimes it is a relief to just write a note on and leave my card in the door frame. But, I have had more real conversations on door steps than in any other part of this campaign. Forums and meet and greets are great for speaking to a larger audience, but they are very prescribed. Two minutes for introductions, two minutes or less for questions that in no way can be answered in any depth in the allotted time. A minute to try to hammer in any closing thoughts. Parades and yard signs increase visibility and name recognition, but there is no chance to talk with folks. I like door knocking because I get to have real conversations with real people. Partisan identity rarely comes up, on either my side or theirs. I can answer a question in depth if asked, but mostly I just listen. I hear what matters to them, what their dreams are, and what is frustrating. I listen, and I learn, and what I have learned will shape my future role as a county commissioner.

We are just over a week from the election. I am down to less than twenty five of my original thousands of palm cards. I had over four hundred yard signs, and those are gone, too. I have nothing left to offer at the doors that I do knock. I do have time though. And I do have an ear. I will not be in a hurry, and I will listen to you.