KOOTENAI COUNTY, Idaho — Experienced police officers from across the country want to work for law enforcement agencies in Kootenai County.
There’s just one problem.
They can’t afford to live here.
Coeur d’Alene Police Capt. Dave Hagar said the agency isn’t actively recruiting officers from outside North Idaho. But the applications come anyway, from officers in Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Texas and Florida.
“People see the North Idaho lifestyle — outdoor recreation, low crime rates,” Hagar said. “They see this as a great place to work.”
Candidates hired from other law enforcement agencies are known as lateral transfers.
Despite interest from such officers, Hagar said recruitment can be tough, due in no small part to skyrocketing housing prices.
In April, the Wall Street Journal/Realtor.com Emerging Housing Market Index identified Coeur d’Alene as the country’s hottest emerging housing market.
The median residential sale price in the Coeur d’Alene region rose in March to $476,000, according to the Coeur d’Alene Association of Realtors — an increase of 47% from the year before.
“Five years ago, the cost of living in Coeur d’Alene was much more reasonable,” Hagar said. “Now it’s gone above that.”
Hiring a mix of local and lateral candidates is a net positive for the Coeur d’Alene Police Department, Hagar said. Officers who come from outside the area bring new perspectives, ideas and techniques with them.
“We constantly have to evolve to meet the needs of our community,” he said. “A diversified employee group works really well for us.”
Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris said his agency is actively courting officers from outside North Idaho.
“Especially those good officers that are in communities that are struggling with supporting their law enforcement agencies,” he said.
The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office advertises in law enforcement trade publications, Norris said, focusing on Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, Ore.
Norris said a number of lateral officers have accepted job offers only to decline upon finding they couldn’t afford housing.
“It’s a significant barrier,” he said. “The housing situation is severe.”
That’s true for lateral and local candidates alike. Norris referred to a KCSO employee who had no choice but to move out of state to live with family when his rent increased by $800 a month.
In addition to deputies, the agency is seeking dispatchers, control room operators, clerks and jail staff.
“We’re going to have to attract local candidates,” Norris said. “We can’t do that when some of our pay is $14 or $15 an hour.”
Norris said KCSO needs the support of the Kootenai County Board of Commissioners, which sets the budget for the agency.
“We don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Kootenai County Commissioner Bill Brooks said the sheriff’s office isn’t the only county agency struggling to find and retain employees.
Wages that were previously considered normal now simply aren’t enough.
“It’s crazy,” Brooks said. “We’ve had people accept jobs and come back two days later saying, ‘I can’t live here.’”
Brooks said funding reasonable wage increases is his top priority this year.
To keep the county running, he said, it’s occasionally necessary to hit the top of a position’s pay range or even offer a retention bonus for employees who are critical to daily operations.
“The most important thing we have in this county are the people who work for us,” Brooks said.
Though law enforcement is essential, he noted that commissioners are obligated to provide as much support as possible to all county agencies, so they can accomplish their tasks.
Because county resources are limited, Brooks said agencies must focus on funding existing programs and employees, rather than adding new ones.
“We’re trying to craft a budget that nobody is happy with but that we can all live with,” Brooks said. “This is a needs-only budget.”
Brooks said there’s no simple or fast solution to the problem of stagnant wages and the rising cost of living.
“We’re going to have to suffer through this together,” he said. “Everyone in Kootenai County.”