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Dubiouser Awards for 2004

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Mike Gearlds lists projects and people deserving of dubious recognition for the past year

It seems like only yesterday that Dubiouser honors were awarded for 2003, but now with the New Year, it’s recognition time for those Panhandle people who made 2004 interesting, if not better , for the rest of us.

        A truly disturbing number of familiar faces once again made the cut for this third annual festival of the mediocre, but new blood, too, has surfaced to claim the coveted Wingéd Gerbil of Victory trophies, carefully crafted from compressed sawdust and moldy squirrel fur.

And so, without further eloquence, here are the 2004, um, winners. Please provide or imagine your own kazoo fanfare or garbage can lid drum roll:

The “Tunnel Vision” Award

Winner: North Idaho Community Action Network

Amused and confused by NICAN’s obstructionist tactics against the imminent Sand Creek Byway in Sandpoint—and their Rube Goldberg-ish alternative “solutions” - I drew a ludicrous cartoon last summer showing a tunnel under the city. Little did I dream they’d actually latch onto the idea and propose their own tunnel plan.

Hey, I was only kidding! What’s next? A teleporter on each end of Sandpoint to carry that unwanted traffic? Hey—I’m still kidding!

The “And Justice for All” Award

Winner: Bonner County Government

“We’re almost to Mordor, Mister Frodo—There’s the Great Red Eye.” Oops, sorry! It’s just that stupid electronic readerboard sign along Highway 95 in Sagle!

Permitted by county staffers who apparently couldn’t be bothered to check its conformance with state and local laws, this monstrosity now looks like it’s here to stay and probably still will be standing after the Great Pyramid has crumbled into dust and Lake Pend Oreille has filled with tailings from the Rock Creek Mine.

Shame on the advertisers who continue to support this blight on the landscape. And shame on Bonner County officials, who tirelessly pursued some poor guy running a cat sanctuary to the ends of the earth until he was crushed and cast into the lake of fire, but can’t seem to get their act together to do something about this—after three years.

The “I speak my mind – whatever that is” Award

Winner: Sandpoint Mayor Ray Miller

A newcomer to the Dubiouser ranks, Miller last year demonstrated that, if anything, he’s vastly overqualified as a dubious achiever and will be a force to reckoned with when the 2005 awards are judged.

He was said to have suggested a boycott of businesses that publicly opposed the Sand Creek Byway, then opined that mental health treatments might be a good idea for some Byway critics. A man of action, he offered to patrol the Sandpoint-Dover bike path, gun in hand, to protect the citizenry from marauding bears or somesuch. He supported denying extending water service to parts of Ponderay—unless that city basically dismantled its own government and became a de facto colony of Sandpoint. Finally, he clamped a media gag order on public committee members. After all, we don’t want to embarrass Sandpoint with some crazy statements, do we?

The “If you leave me, I might do something stupid” Award

Winner: Lake Pend Oreille School District No. 84

If there’s a burner behind the infamous “back burner,” that’s the one where District 84 has put the educational and facility needs of Clark Fork—and then is too cheap to turn on the gas. From the uncut grass on the athletic field to the boarded-up and unused shell of the old school rotting next to the newer building, you’d swear you were looking at a facility in Albania were it not for the “CLARK FORK JR/SR HIGH SCHOOL” lettering on the wall.

Yet District 84 is curiously attached to keeping the Clark Fork area, so much so that its teaching staff and board of trustees chairperson goes to great lengths to convince the state Board of Education that Clark Forkians, too poor to pay taxes and too ignorant to appreciate the nuances of modern learning, would descend into the new Dark Ages if allowed to form their own school district.

To paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is: more local control of education.”

The “If you leave me, I might quietly pay you several hundred thousand dollars” Award

Winner: Lake Pend Oreille School District No. 84

Ah, the school district. Without it there might not even be a Dubiouser Achievement Awards. For example, consider the threatened tort claim by the wife of former Chief Administrator Steve Battenschlag, who claims she was harassed and unfairly dumped from her LPOSD job after her husband was removed as the district’s string-puller and lightning rod. She wants half a million bucks for her suffering.

Like a fight between Dracula and the Wolf Man, it’s hard to figure out who to root for in this one. In all likelihood, it will be quietly be settled out of court, like so many other costly blunders by the school district. And it’ll be paid for by the Great Unwashed—that’s us—by being buried in a blanket tort levy and hushed-up by “terms of the agreement.” If this case, which required a response from LPOSD by December 27, disappears off the radar, you’ll know that’s just what happened.

The “End of Life as We Know It” Award

Winner: Bonner County realtors and business owners

There’s a big difference between “growth” and “economic progress,” as this area will have to learn the hard way, I fear. Thanks to the crushing, inexorable power of positive national publicity, your North Idaho shack on five mosquito-plagued acres now is worth more than what Elvis forked over for Graceland. It’s salad days for real estate hawkers and for those selling out and moving on.

Chamber of Commerce types—ever the fanboys of growth for its own sake—must be beside themselves with glee. After all, 10 percent more people here means 10 percent more burgers, snow tires and Britney Spears CDs out the door. Ca-ching, ca-ching.

But North Idaho wages are not even starting to keep pace with skyrocketing home prices. Soon we’ll all be making motel beds, serving pricey coffee drinks and diving for dimes thrown by well-heeled seasonal residents and retirees. As the low-paid locals in trendy resort areas everywhere will tell you, a “service economy” is not really an economy at all.

Very few ski resort cocktail waitresses can afford an Aspen townhouse, and no hotel pool boys go home to a high-rise condo in Acapulco. They live instead in crowded, downscale settlements miles away from the slopes, beaches and fun spots. Sound familiar?

There’ll be lots more traffic and less open space in Bonner County’s almost-inevitable future. Once gone, that “quality of life” everyone came for will be gone forever. Yes, all that growth will mean some job creation, but there’ll also be a lot more people competing for those jobs. And employers in popular, scenic areas know they can pay a lot less for an hour’s work than in Kenosha or Akron.

In short, don’t expect a raise any time soon to pay for that house you want that’s doubled in price over the past year. There’s a scad of new residents in the outer office, job applications in hand. They left the security of their old areas and will be thrilled to do your job for even less than you’re making now.

Well, that’s about it for 2004—Oh, yeah: There’s still the little matter of Dubiouser Achiever of the Year.

As usual, there was no shortage of qualified contenders, but in all fairness the honor must be shared this time around, because this area could be so much better, so much more, were it not for a powerful coalition of the shortsighted, incompetent and complacent.

So, kudos to all the smiling local boosters—media, business, politicians, realtors. They’re determined to pursue growth—and the resulting larger tax base—as an end in itself, all the while touting that it’s the answer to all our problems without actually detailing how that’s supposed to work. Attracting new residents while ignoring that so many employers in Bonner County have a problem with paying workers living wages is their concept of civic pride.

This is a beautiful area with the friendliest people I’ve ever known, but to call it a “paradise” is to put on those Chamber of Commerce blinders a little too tightly.

I actually know people here who’ve broken limbs or joints and left them to “heal” on their own. Why? Because they don’t have medical insurance and are too poor to afford a doctor’s care or hospitalization.

Until I moved to North Idaho, I never personally knew people whose teeth were literally falling out of their heads because they can’t pay for root canals, crowns or even fillings.

I know college graduates doing professional work who make less than $9 an hour. I know lots of people working full-time jobs without benefits of any kind. And it seems the longer you live here, the lower your expectations for education, health care and bank balances become.

And county officials have been eager to jack up property tax assessments based on nebulous “market value” that can only be realized if the owner quits their low-paying job, sells their home and moves away. Your property taxes can increase more than 25 percent a year, but you still make the same old pittance at your Panhandle job, or jobs.

As the sad joke goes: “Do you know how to make a small fortune in Bonner County? Move here with a large fortune.”

Prospective newcomers who are not retirees or seasonal residents should take some time and talk to the neighbors: Where do you work? Do you work? Does your employer pay benefits? Are your kids planning on college? Have you been able to save money? Are you planning on selling your home?

Those well-compensated writers from Sunset, Outside and USA Today who painted Sandpoint as the new Elysium should try finding a job here themselves.

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