Our state is a destination for summer recreation and holiday celebrations. Ahead of July 4th weekend, Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris issued an advisory reminding out-of-state visitors that they can (and will) face consequences for possession of controlled substances. However, the sheriff’s public service announcement also included a note for Idaho lawmakers: a call to give counties local option taxing authority to fund public safety operations rather than relying solely on property taxes.
READ: Leave Your Drugs at Home
Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports: This week, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office put out a public service announcement ahead of the 4th of July holiday that caught my eye for a few reasons. Here to discuss public safety issues surrounding the holiday is Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris. Sheriff Norris, thanks so much for joining me.
Bob Norris, Kootenai County Sheriff: Great to be here with you.
IR: Sheriff, the beginning of this PSA is directed at Washington state residents, noting that the Kootenai County Jail sees a disproportionate number of out-of-state bookings from your neighbors to the west. (Coeur d’Alene, for those who aren’t familiar, is pretty close to the Idaho-Washington border.) Sheriff, what are the reasons for these bookings?
Norris: Well, there’s a little bit of comedy in this press release, but there’s 100% seriousness. Because we’ve been seeing that when we have been contacting Washington residents, they didn’t realize. Some of them, most of the recreational users didn’t realize that only in Washington are they not enforcing – or they decriminalized – very dangerous drugs. But in Idaho, we have not, and we take them very serious. So, your methamphetamine, your cocaine, your fentanyl is still against the law. And for that recreational user, it’s important for them to know that this isn’t Spokane. This isn’t Washington. You’re not going to get a pamphlet on where you can get help. You’re likely to go to jail. And we see the last time we did statistics in 2021, 46% of the people that we arrested during that weekend – which was 43 of them out of 93 – were from the state of Washington.
IR: This seems obvious, but just to check: Did those arrests increase when Washington’s drug enforcement laws changed?
Norris: You know, we have seen a lot of different dynamics, but I haven’t quantified that. But what we do see within a lot of the criminals and what our intel is telling us, and what our undercover operations are telling us, is that there is an element of the criminal element in Washington that says, ‘Hey, we’re not going to go to Idaho because they still enforce this. We’ll do a transaction in Liberty Lake, we’ll do a transaction on this side of the border, but we’re not going to do it in Idaho, because if you get caught doing this in Idaho, you’re likely to go to jail or prison.’ So, we do see that. But as far as the exact quantification, I have not done that.
IR: Are you also seeing an increase in Idaho residents who are being arrested for possession or trafficking because it’s more easy for them to get those drugs that are that are illegal in Idaho – but not in Washington – if they just go over to Spokane Valley?
Norris: Right. We haven’t seen an increase in that, about the same. Now, our jails I will tell you, our jail runs about 500 inmates right now on a daily basis. We should be about 361 with my staffing situation. So, we do have an increase in inmates. But then again, we’re one of the fastest growing counties in the United States. So, our population is growing by leaps and bounds.
IR: 4th of July is pretty busy for first responders for so many other reasons. How do these arrests impact other public safety calls?
Norris: It takes away the deputies from doing our normal calls for service, our normal activity load, and then all of a sudden we’re dealing with either petty theft, grand theft, DUI with injuries. Those take a lot of the deputies’ time. And these aren’t just to the road, too. They’re on the water because we have 18 lakes and waterways here, so many of them are arrested for operating a boat under the influence. And that takes away from enforcing the law and keeping everybody safe.
IR: I think a lot of people don’t realize you can get picked up for a DUI on a watercraft. And that’s a very dangerous situation, especially when the lakes are as crowded as they are on Fourth of July weekend.
Norris: I’ve got to tell you that serious injuries, critical injuries and deaths have a nexus to two things: alcohol, and not wearing a Coast Guard approved life vest. If you do at least one of those things, your chances of survival increase tenfold. And if you’re not wearing a vest, and drinking, the odds are really not in your favor.
IR: Your county obviously isn’t the only county that borders a state with more lax drug laws. You’re a member of the Idaho Sheriffs Association. Is this something that other sheriffs like in Payette or Latah or Nez Perce counties also see during July 4th?
Norris: 100%. Yep. I have talked to the sheriffs in Latah and also clear Clearwater, up north in Bonner and in Boundary. We absolutely do see an increase in people coming over here and not realizing what the drug laws are. And yeah, it’s a significant issue.
IR: Your public service announcement wasn’t just directed at Washington State residents. You also had a pointed message for Idaho lawmakers. I’m going to read directly from it here. “Attention Idaho Legislature: Provide local option taxing authority to the County Board of Commissioners to fund Sheriff Public Safety Operations. Stop placing the burden on property owners, they are low users of Law Enforcement services.” Local opinion taxing authority has been such a contentious issue that a lot of people don’t realize, right? It’s not one of those flashy issues that we hear about from the legislature very much, but it’s been a sticking point for years and years. It’s one of the first things I covered when I started covering the legislature in 2011 in Twin Falls. Is this something that you’ve talked to your lawmakers about?
Norris: Yes. Oh, yeah. We are having a significant discussion within the Idaho Sheriffs Association with the 43 other sheriffs. We are talking to our local legislators about this, and we believe that this is a tool that the commissioners can use, because you know a lot of people don’t realize, the legislature every year when they get together, they come up with a property tax equation and it doesn’t matter if you’re an urban county or a rural county, guess what? That’s going to be the property valuation formula. And everybody has to follow it.
Well, maybe in Elmore County or Clark County, it’s probably okay. But when you’re one of the fastest growing counties in the United States of America, that formula is not going to work for us. So, I have reached out to our legislators. I have reached out to the governor’s office, and I believe we just need more tools in the toolbox so we can address some of our needs here in Kootenai County.
IR: I know that a lot of the Magic Valley lawmakers who support local option tax authority look at it as a good addition to the sales tax, right? Add a penny or two to sales tax and put that money in, say, roads to account for the increase in traffic during the work day from rural county residents who come and don’t pay property tax but use all those public safety services and infrastructure services.
You mention property tax and the legislature interfacing with that. How do you view an ideal local option taxing authority?
Norris: I envision it such as a tool in a toolbox to allow the legislators to give the option to county commissioners to be able to say, ‘Hey, this is an option for you if you want to increase your local sales tax for services that are generated in your county.’ Let’s say, maybe you cap it at 2%, that would be the cap, that would be the most you’d be able to take. Give that tool or that option to the local board of county commissioners and allow them to be responsible to the constituents and let them argue to the constituents why they feel the need to take that or not.
IR: You obviously live in a conservative county. We’re in a conservative state where people are pretty proud of the tax reductions that the state and, when applicable, local governments have made. Is that a winning message for a county commission to try and sell to voters?
Norris: I think it is in one subject, public safety, and I think that if you limit it to public safety, then I think that there is more likely an appetite for it. But if you allow it to be spent on a variety of different subjects and causes, and if you supplant money over here, and over here, I don’t think that’s going to pass. But I believe what we’ve seen across this country in the last couple of years, that there is an appetite for strong, competent, trained law enforcement officers – and jail beds.
IR: Of course, an entirely different issue that interfaces with public safety. Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris, thank you so much for joining us today.
Norris: Thank you very much. Appreciate you.