Latah County voters received their first glance — albeit virtual — at the District 2 county commissioner candidates Wednesday.
Incumbent Tom Lamar, D-Moscow, and challenger Gabriel Rench, R-Moscow, often differed on topics like property taxes at a virtual candidate forum hosted by the Moscow Chamber of Commerce. The forum was streamed via Facebook Live, and the candidates sat socially-distanced at the Best Western Plus University Inn in Moscow.
Rench, a political television show host and public relations consultant, disagreed with how property taxes are structured, the authority of government leaders to shut down businesses during a pandemic and said climate change is “cyclical and not man-driven.”
Rench said the structure of property taxes is unhealthy, noting homeowners who fail to pay taxes on their property, which they supposedly own, can have their homes taken from them.
“That’s not really true home ownership,” Rench said.
He said the government should collect taxes but he does not like the fact taxes are tied to people’s property.
Rench admitted that restructuring the property tax system is a long-term state legislative issue.
Rench, who said he is running to lower taxes, noted Latah County commissioners voted to increase property taxes each of the past four years. The fiscal 2021 budget, which starts Oct. 1, calls for no property tax increase except for new construction value.
Lamar, who has served six years as commissioner and is executive director of the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute, said he and his fellow commissioners have a history of being fiscally conservative and managing budgets.
He said property values in the county regularly increase, which drives up taxes.
The commissioner candidates were asked how Latah County can work with the state to obtain more funding for the county.
Lamar said it would be more helpful to have the state improve the property tax situation for residents than the county obtaining funding from the state.
He said he would like the state to improve the eligibility levels for the property tax reduction, or circuit breaker, program. The program reduces property taxes for qualified applicants.
He also called on the state to index the homeowner’s exemption and better fund schools as the state is constitutionally mandated, which would take a great deal of pressure off taxpayers, Lamar said.
Rench said increased taxation leads to a decline in people’s liberties.
He said he would like to see counties and cities keep more of their money and send a smaller percentage to the state.
“I think we’ve kind of created a governmental entangled mess between state and local municipalities and local counties that I think kind of needs to be sorted out,” Rench said.
“When we look to the state for more funding, all we’re doing is looking for more strains, more regulation and actually increases costs over time,” he added.
Rench called the government’s response to COVID-19 a failure because of the business shutdowns. He said the government does not have the constitutional authority to shutter businesses.
He said government officials need to get out of the way and let businesses make their own decisions to protect the health of their clients, employees and communities.
“That’s kind of what it means to be conservative and what it has been for a long time, and we’ve kind of fooled those definitions,” Rench said. “So I’d like to get back to principle conservative leadership and decisions in how we approach these issues.”
Latah County District 1 Commissioner Kathie LaFortune, D-Moscow, Sheriff Richie Skiles, R-Potlatch, and Prosecuting Attorney Bill Thompson, D-Moscow — all of whom are running unopposed — participated in the candidate forum.
LaFortune and Skiles are seeking second terms and Thompson has served as county prosecutor for 28 years.
Prior to the candidates’ remarks, Latah County Clerk/Auditor/Recorder Henrianne Westberg addressed concerns some residents have about voting by mail by saying she does not foresee any mail voting issues.
Westberg encourages residents to request an absentee ballot and vote by mail this fall to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. She said there have been no problems over the years involving the county sending ballots to voters and voters returning marked ballots.
“It’s all worked just fine,” Westberg said.
After each election, she said she looks at the postmark date of each uncounted ballot that arrived too late to see if it was mailed in a timely manner.
“I’ve only found two pieces of mail that have ever reached that level of concern,” Westberg said.
Of the 24,000 registered voters in Latah County, 8,000, or 33 percent, have requested an absentee ballot thus far.
“You might think that sounds really good, but I’d really like to see that number doubled,” Westberg said.
Garrett Cabeza can be reached at (208) 883-4631, or by email to email@example.com.