Contributed by Dan Blocksom, Boise County Prosecuting Attorney
Previous articles over the past couple months described the roles of the prosecuting attorney and the sheriff. Based on my experience as an attorney for three different counties, as well as on the Idaho Association of Counties handbook, this article briefly summarizes the roles and challenges that the remaining county elected officials face.
Board of County Commissioners
The board of county commissioners sets the budget, salaries, and general polices for the county, such as personnel policies and ordinances. Contrary to common misconceptions, outside of those primary responsibilities, the county commissioners do not have the authority to manage other elected officials, and thus shouldn’t be blamed for the errors and mistakes of the other officials. The budget and salary setting responsibility, in and of itself, is a very trying and difficult task. The commissioners have to balance cutting salaries and staff against recruiting and retaining valuable employees. Assessing the return on the dollar for investing in the workforce is often difficult to do, and the impacts of both cutting or raising wages may not be immediately noticeable. The commissioners therefore often face a no-win situation – they either end up (a) setting salaries too low (which might be more expensive in the long run due to retraining and associated liability costs); or (b) setting salaries too high (which is nearly always unpopular with voters). Capital investments represent a similarly difficult decision. For example, when choosing between maintaining an old facility and building a new one, the “right decision” in a two-year timeframe could be the worst possible decision in a ten- or twenty-year timeframe.
In addition to these major roles, the board also manages the road department (which maintains and clears the county roads), the planning and zoning department (which handles building permits and conditional use permits), the solid waste department (which handles trash), the noxious weeds department, and the community justice department (which handles probation, diversion programs, and community service).
The clerk wears the greatest number of hats of any of the elected officials. First, the clerk is the clerk of the district court, and therefore keeps records of court proceedings and processes court filings. Second, the clerk is the clerk of the board of county commissioners, and therefore keeps records of the board’s proceedings. Third, the clerk is the auditor, or the county budget officer, and thus keeps track of county expenditures, appropriations, documentation, and revenues. The clerk prepares the county budget each year, regularly double-checks numbers with the county treasurer, and prepares paperwork that allows the county to pay its expenses. Fourth, the clerk is the recorder, and therefore records, files, indexes, and maintains a great number of documents, such as deeds and marriage licenses. Fifth, the clerk runs the elections. The ballots, voting booths, voting locations, voter registrations, absentee ballots, and election notices don’t magically happen – that’s the work of your county clerk. Sixth, the clerk conducts the work of the county medical indigency program. Although it may seem odd, Idaho already has a universal health care system of sorts since 1992 when the Idaho legislature designed a system which required the counties to pay the medical expenses of individuals who do not have health insurance. Determining which individuals do and do not have the means to pay their own medical bills entails processing a great deal of paperwork, and sometimes results in litigation with hospitals.
The assessor’s primary job is to determine the market value for all real property (land) and personal property (e.g. trailers, machinery) within the county. Mapping the parcels, tracking ownership of the parcels, maintaining current and accurate information on property ownership, and preparing lists of property (known as property tax rolls) are all part of this role. The assessor has to undergo training and follow laws and guidance from the Idaho State Tax Commission to ensure that the valuations are done correctly. The common joke among county assessors that county governments would not exist without the assessors is actually quite true – if property values were not assessed, then the board of county commissioners would not have any property value on which to impose taxes. The assessor also handles the titling and licensing of motor vehicles and vessels in the county, and manages the county DMV.
The treasurer is first and foremost the tax collector. The treasurer does not set the actual tax amount (the board does that) or the value of your property (the assessor does that) – the treasurer merely collects the taxes for the budget that was set by the board. When a property owner doesn’t pay taxes, then the treasurer takes that property through the tax deed process. The treasurer also deposits all moneys coming into the county treasury, and allows money to be spent from the county treasury.
The lesser known role filled by the treasurer is that of the public administrator. Specifically, this responsibility entails handling the property belonging to dead people who did not have a will or cannot otherwise be identified.
The coroner investigates certain types of deaths. Depending on the situation, the coroner must sometimes order autopsies to be performed, which can become quite expensive. One of the unique challenges of operating a coroner’s office is that deaths rarely occur during the 8 to 5 business day. As a result, being able to recruit and retain individuals who (a) have the requisite training, (b) are willing to be on-call for long periods of time, but also (c) have another source of income that is flexible enough to allow them to leave in the middle of the day can be very difficult, especially on a limited budget.
All of these positions have one thing in common – they are all thankless. They are also usually underpaid, especially in the smaller, rural counties in Idaho. These roles don’t get much widespread recognition and gratitude – the attention they do get is usually due to a mistake that is made on their watch, regardless of whether it was their fault or their intention. Inevitably, for each one thing that you may hear that they have done wrong, chances are that they have done countless things correctly that you will never hear about. If you haven’t recently, please consider taking a minute of your time during this next week to thank them personally for their service to Boise County.