The Blaine County commissioners are expected to decide next week whether to opt into a state program that would cover the salaries of public safety employees using federal coronavirus funds—but would require the county to forgo its usual 3 percent increase of the property tax portion of the county budget.

The commissioners signaled their interest in participating in the program in July, but that decision wasn’t final. They now have until Sept. 14 to choose whether to participate.

If they decide to opt in, the state of Idaho would put $2.8 million worth of the $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding it has received from the federal government toward covering public safety salaries in Blaine County. The program has been characterized by the Governor’s Office as an attempt to provide some property tax relief to Idahoans; homeowners in Blaine County would receive a property tax credit if the county opts in.

But at the commissioners’ regular meeting Tuesday, several county officials said they had concerns about the legality of the program—and concerns that if the federal government ultimately determines that CARES funding cannot be used in this way, the county would then be responsible for paying the $2.8 million back to the state.

“I think there’s a very small chance that we’ll end up in that position, but if we did, it would be very dire for the county,” Commissioner Angenie McCleary said.

Blaine County typically increases the property tax portion of its budget by about 3 percent—the legal maximum in Idaho without voter approval—each year. A 3 percent increase in the 2021 property tax budget would mean an additional $337,000 for the county.

Rather than allow the state to cover $2.8 million worth of public safety salaries in Blaine County—potentially putting the county on the hook for paying back that amount if the program is found not to meet CARES Act requirements—the county could look into the possibility of opting into the program but only taking $337,000 from the state, Commissioner Dick Fosbury suggested. Doing so would provide some property tax relief to homeowners while mitigating the risk of having to pay back a large amount of money, he said.

County Clerk JoLynn Drage said she was not sure whether the county would be allowed to opt into the program under those conditions but that she would look into the matter.

If Blaine County does ultimately participate, only homeowners—not renters—would experience tax relief, county Treasurer John David Davidson noted.

“This is tough, because I think that people do need some help during these times and seeing the relief would be a great thing for homeowners,” Davidson said. “But there are a lot of people that aren’t homeowners and won’t be seeing this relief if we opt into it. I’m not sure this is the best way to give everyone in Idaho COVID relief.”

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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