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Maintaining Bonner County's Rural Roots

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An exhibit at the Bonner County Museum An exhibit at the Bonner County Museum

Who should pay?


We have a lot of different descriptions for Bonner County, depending on which aspect we’re trying to describe: it’s a tourist destination for some, and a desirable place to live for others. Politically it has tended to be a lighter shade of red—though not much lighter—than the rest of the state, and socially it always seems to have a lot going on. It’s been described in various publications as one of the nation’s “top art towns,” as one of the “most beautiful small towns” in America, the “cool Northwest’s hot property,” and, perhaps most famously, as “A Norman Rockwell meets Ansel Adams classic.”

In all the talk about the beauty, the arts scene, the ski hill or the big lake, there is one quality which underlies all the rest: Bonner County is a rural county, with rural traditions. That is probably most evident during a week in late August when many county residents gather at the Fairgrounds to wrestle sometimes-recalcitrant livestock into the proper stance during a fit-and-show performance, show off their prized family dill pickle recipe, or display the meticulous craftsmanship in a log-cabin quilt.

It’s hard to say how many generations of residents have participated in the fair, or how many more have stopped by to partake in the bounty, bid on an animal, or just enjoy the hometown atmosphere. But it’s fair to say it’s a lot, which is partly why residents are grumbling at the news that at least two of our three-member board of county commissioners aren’t sure that using tax dollars to support it is appropriate.

And not just the fair; the question has been raised whether the entire fairgrounds program, along with county support of the Extension Service and its 4-H program, and even the local historical society and museum, are proper recipients of local tax dollars.

The response has been a rousing chorus of, “What the $*%^&$?!”

When the question first came up during this fall’s budget hearings, early outrage prompted the commissioners to continue to fund these programs for the current fiscal year, with the promise (some saw it as a threat) to consider this funding fully before the next budget hearings roll around. Then, in a mass of confusion, the local tea party, along with Bonner County’s new Property Rights Council (which many see as an arm of the local tea party) got dragged into the mix, and a hundred people or so showed up at a meeting of the Farm Bureau to give commissioner Mike Nielsen a piece of their minds about any funding threats to programs dear to the hearts of people who live here. “You need to go back to Alaska,” one resident told Nielsen, receiving a rousing burst of applause for the statement.

Nielsen and fellow commissioner Cornel Rasor are quick to say they support these programs, though not necessarily continued tax funding for them, while Pam Stout, Sandpoint tea party leader and now the “Paralegal Program Manager” for the county Property Rights Council, disavows any involvement in the controversy at all. “This is not currently on the agenda for the Property Rights Council,” she said, and added “the commissioners have not asked me,” to look into alternate funding methods for these programs although, she said, she will certainly do so if asked.

After the Farm Bureau meeting, Nielsen quickly made a proposal to scrap plans for an ‘advisory ballot’ that was to go out with county tax statements, asking those who pay property tax whether funding for these programs should come from user fees instead of from the county tax base. What the ballot neglected to mention was that none of these programs are fully funded by property tax revenues; each, at different levels and in different ways, already charges fees to offset their costs.

The Bonner County Fairgrounds

Bonner County Fairgrounds

Of these three, the county provides the greatest tax support to the county fairgrounds, because it pays the salaries and benefits for a fair manager, a groundskeeper/maintenance man and a part-time secretary, along with a number of temporary hires who help to set up and tear down the county fair each fall. It also provides about $20,000 that is used directly for fair premiums. In total, county taxpayers fund around $150,000 each year in support of the fairgrounds.

For all other expenses—from heat and lights to building repair and construction to computer equipment and software—the fair (through its staff and a volunteer fair board) pays its own way. They provide their own vehicles and gasoline, plow the snow, pay their own phone bill and have undertaken several projects to improve the barns and buildings. 

The fair board has even developed part of the property into a campground facility offering 33 dedicated sites complete with electric hook-ups (two have sewer hook-ups as well), a bathroom facility with four separate showers, and a covered pavilion, all paved, irrigated and ADA accessible.

The biggest way the fairgrounds raises this money it provides toward its upkeep is in renting its facilities to the community—those user-fees so much in the favor of Nielsen and Rasor. The main exhibit hall is rented six months of the year for volleyball; Avalance, Striker and City Rec soccer rent fair facilities January through March. The Festival at Sandpoint, Lost in the 50s, the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, area veterans’ organizations, the Northwest Barrel Racing Association, and the Schweitzer Alpine Racing Club are just some of the organizations who rent the facilities to host shows, dinners, meetings, parties and fundraisers. Local residents rent space for weddings, reunions and other private events, while horse shows, rodeos, motocross and the demolition derby all pay to use the fairground’s facilities.

In 2010, it’s estimated anywhere between 65,000 and 90,000 people attended some type of event at the Bonner County Fairgrounds; that in a county with a population of just over 40,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s figures for 2010.

In addition to rental fees, fair employees have been active in writing grants to obtain funding for major projects (the campground improvements—now an asset of the county—were fully funded by grants) as well as organizing volunteer labor and supplies for other projects, like the revamping of the pig barn.

The news that these programs were said to be under “a year’s reprieve” left fair manager Rhonda Livingstone with more than just a hint of despair. Livingstone, while hardly resting on her laurels, was, until this fall, proud of how far the fair has come since she first took the job. The seven-page, five-year plan she developed in 2005 is full of ‘completed’ check marks for things she, her staff and other fair supporters have accomplished; projects like fencing, upgrading electricity,  purchasing and installing energy efficient lighting, landscaping, painting and sound systems. And while there is continued focus on doing more with less, she can see no positive outcome if, come next fall, the fairgrounds has to pick up the expenses of salaries and benefits on top of all else that they do, especially given a mission statement that points to providing a “free educational opportunity for residents of Bonner County,” when it comes to traditional fair offerings.

Although no official economic impact statement has been undertaken to show the dollar benefit the community as a whole receives from operation of the fairgrounds, it’s likely that amount is substantial. Consider just the week of fair itself. In a report drafted by Livingstone, she reported, “Fair-time concessionaires make  significant expenditures (in) our local economy... they purchase the bulk of their food from local wholesalers and retailers. They also spend on motels, restaurants, cooking fuel and other needed supplies.” In addition, she says, “Commercial exhibitors purchase goods for resale, exhibit materials, hire local labor, stay in motels and eat in restaurants...”

These dollars, of course, support local businesses that in turn hire area residents, pay taxes, and make further purchases that help to keep local dollars circulating.

The Bonner County Extension Service

And then there’s the 4-H program, which has garnered the lion’s share of attention, and its parent, so to speak, the county extension service, which has not.

The extension program, of the three currently in the commissioner’s sights, is probably the one closest to a community’s rural roots. Extension programs grew out of an 1862 promise by President Abraham Lincoln to extend the benefits of scientific research and education to the people themselves via the land-grant university system, of which the University of Idaho is a part.

This program has proved itself nationally over and over again. Though most people have heard of World War II’s “victory gardens,” they might not be aware they were an Extension Service program—one that, at its height, involved 20 million American families and provided 40 percent of the fresh vegetables grown for consumption in 1943.

It’s not just about vegetables grown almost 70 years ago, of course. Today’s Extension programs encompass timber management, water quality issues, leadership training, nutrition, child care, economic development and emergency response, among other things. And yes, 4‑H as well.

In Idaho, the Extension program says they have “brought unbiased, locally relevant, research-based programs to help us stay globally competitive while also addressing local needs,” and have done so for over 100 years. At the state level, for example, the Extension service developed “the healthy diabetic plate,” in an effort to make it easier for diabetics to determine how to create a diet that helps to mitigate their disease. The healthy plate plan, conceived in Idaho, is now becoming a national phenomenon.

Mike Bauer, the local Extension Educator, says that area funding for the Extension Service—including 4-H—is “a three-legged stool.” A portion of the budget comes from the USDA, and a portion comes from the state, via the University of Idaho. Less than a third of the budget—between 23 and 28 percent—is provided by the county. Those dollars, about $82,462 this year, provide for travel costs, paper, pens, the 4-H program and the salary of an administrative assistant.


Replacing that funding through some type of ‘user fee’ is not that simple, he warns. “We have restrictions on charging user fees,” he explained.

When it comes to the 4-H program, Bauer said, the question about future funding, “is like a dark grey cloud,” hanging over his head.

So what does a county resident pay for all these services, including the 4-H program? “It’s about $2 per resident per year,” Bauer explained. “The bottom line is, it’s very small potatoes.”

The Bonner County Historical Society & Museum

That said, the smallest potato in the bushel would be the Bonner County Historical Society and Museum, which receives a mere $18,500 in funding each year from the county tax rolls, or less than .50 cents per person for the entire year. It is also a program that provides a direct benefit to the county itself, as the Historical Society serves as a local repository for county records.

Bonner County Historical Society

By statute, governmental entities in Idaho must keep available all records pertaining to county business. This is not just out of curiosity—there’s usually not a month goes by that doesn’t see someone, for some legal reason or other, poking through the minutes of commissioners meetings a century passed in order to make a determination about something today.

The Idaho State Archives, located in Boise, was designed to hold those records but, as those of us who live here know all too well, Boise is not really a convenient destination when there’s something we need to look up. Our historical society, by holding at least some of the county records (currently they have only been asked to hold assessor’s records), is offering a needed service to county residents.

That represents only a small piece of the local history the Historical Society holds in trust for the residents of Bonner County. They maintain archives of local newspapers from the 1890s through today (and, in fact, hold the only complete archive of the River Journal in existence), along with numerous artifacts, photographs and documents that tell the story of Bonner County from the time prior to its inception through today.

The primary mission of the Historical Society is to maintain a museum, a goal of the community that began back in the 1950s. Through their own fundraising efforts, they constructed the building in Lakeview Park that now houses (to overflowing) the museum’s varied collections, which opened its doors in 1980. 

All this is accomplished by a part time curator, Ann Ferguson, and an energetic (and volunteer) board of directors, along with other community volunteers who give their time to the preservation of the area’s history. All told, in fact, volunteers contribute approximately 5,000 hours a year to the Historical Society. Other than the minimal amount of money they receive from the county in return for housing records, their budget dollars are raised through admission fees, speakers fees, research fees, fundraisers, grants, gift shop sales, history books, memberships and donations, along with an endowment fund that earns interest dollars fed into the operating budget. It is hard to think of a way the Historical Society could raise additional dollars that they’ve not already undertaken.

The Tax Question

One commissioner, Lewis Rich, has said he not only supports all three of these programs, he also supports their funding in the county’s budget. Given their “historical presence dating back to the late 1800s, along with public sentiment, some tax fund support is definitely warranted,” he said. Rich is out-voted, however, by the two remaining commissioners, Cornel Rasor and Mike Nielsen, who have taken pains to point out their own beliefs in the value of these programs, while questioning whether they should properly be funded through property taxes. And it was Pam Stout, despite her lack of formal involvement in the debate, who put the issue into stark terms.

“To some extent, with certain programs, we are subsidizing the middle-class and wealthy,” she said. As an example, she cited the fair, and the current situation where people can attend at no charge. “If it was fee-based, people who don’t go wouldn’t be forced to pay.”

That is the underlying issue—that taxes are an “involuntary taking” from the people. Taxes are only appropriate, she said, for “basic services and as a safety net for some people.”

Regardless of how much of their funding these groups are already providing outside of the tax stream, she feels the county needs “to look at other ways to see if they can raise [even] more.”

And there the issue sits for now, simmering much as program supporters are simmering, waiting to see what the commissioners will next throw into the pot. 

“We simply wanted to raise the discussion level,” Nielsen said to the audience at the Farm Bureau meeting. “Do we want to have these things and how do we pay for them.” When it comes to balancing the county budget, he said, “Essential functions have to be protected—“extras” have to go.”

Still unanswered—and even unasked— is the question of whether residents of Bonner County consider these programs to be “extras” at all, and whether the indirect benefit to all county residents of having these programs should be ignored in favor of forcing only the direct user to bear their costs.


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Landon Otis

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Homepage, Headlines, Bonner County, funding, taxes, Bonner County Fair, Bonner County Historical Society, Ann Ferguson, Lewis Rich, Mike Nielsen, Rhonda Livingstone, Bonner County Commissioners, Cornel Rasor, Pam Stout, Bonner County Museum, Bonner County Property Rights Council, Farm Bureau

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