More than a dozen people crowded into the Benewah County Commissioners’ meeting Monday to see Jack Buell be presented with a Distinguished Service Award from the offices of Idaho’s two senators. A proclamation about how much Buell has contributed to the county and to St. Maries was entered into the U.S. Congressional Record earlier this year when Sen. Mike Crapo read it from the Senate floor.

Karen Roetter, who works with Crapo, read the tribute at the commissioners’ meeting. It thanked Buell for his 46 years of service as county commissioner and commended him for many examples of his “generosity and outstanding service,” and also added that “Jack is someone with great integrity, dedication, experience, wisdom and institutional knowledge.”

“I’m very grateful. Very grateful to everybody,” Buell said. “Thank you very much. I’ve got a lot of friends here that I dearly love.”

Roetter thanked everyone in the room for keeping the award a secret, which she acknowledged can be a challenge in a small town.

“I was really surprised,” Buell said. “I thought we were going to be talking about the sewer system, figuring out what’s going on between the city and the county. I was wondering what you had up your sleeve.”

After presenting the tribute, Roetter and her colleague Stefany Bales, who works with Sen. James Risch, stayed to update the commissioners on the work the senators were doing in Washington and its potential impact on people in Benewah County, which included issues related to budgets, judicial appointments, and other programs. The commissioners expressed concern about the southern U.S. border and an influx of drugs and illegal immigrants that have been reaching the country, which the representatives agreed were very important to the senators.

They also discussed a new executive order from President Joe Biden, which would require organizations with at least 100 employees to mandate vaccines or weekly tests for their workers. Both senators have spoken out and taken action against the measure, though Roetter said any real challenge would come from the court system. Right now, the requirement has been halted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Louisiana.

Earlier in the meeting, the commissioners had read a letter that announced Adams County would no longer do business with employers with vaccine requirements and asked for other counties’ support. The commissioners declined to sign up in agreement at this meeting, deciding to wait at least until vaccine questions were more settled at a national and state level before addressing them as a county.

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Representatives from T-O Engineering announced they had miscalculated the work that needed to be done for a culvert at Slaughter House Bridge, so their work would be delayed over four months.

“We might have made a tactical mistake,” said Chris Mansfield, a project manager at T-O. Instead of a two-foot concrete base under their culvert, which they had planned, environmental regulations would require between five and fourteen feet, depending on the time of year. Such a large shift will require designs to go through a new set of approvals, which is what will cause the length of the delay, and that will in turn hold up other construction projects.

“It’s not the regulations that screwed us up, it’s the designs that should have been turned in and approved a long time before that,” said board chairman Phil Lampert. “To get to this point and not have a final design – this should have been a priority, and we depend on you folks to do a good job of that. And now we’re looking at not meeting the deadlines that are really, really important for Benewah County. I’m beyond disappointed, I’m just mad. This is on your shoulders.”

Mansfield assured the commissioners they would do everything in their power to get the project done as soon as possible but could not offer a firm date.

Other road construction projects in the county were going ahead closer to schedule. Jim Roletto with HMH Engineering said that a crushing project at Sanders Road had finished, and the commissioners approved a pay request to haul away the gravel that had been crushed. Waddell Bridge, which has been delayed about a month, is on schedule to be replaced before the end of November.

Commissioner Mark Reynolds laid out a plan for leasing and replacing road equipment and other county vehicles and machines, but the others were concerned about getting into financial agreements that could put the county into a difficult situation years down the road. The board tabled any decision until a later meeting.

“I’m not trying to keep you from upgrading your equipment, I just disagree with the way you’re going about it,” said commissioner Bob Short.

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Short and Reynolds also disagreed about the use of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to fund payroll from the first months of the pandemic. The potential use of ARPA money, which was designated by the federal government to provide wide-ranging relief after the first wave of Covid last year, has come up often at the commissioners’ meetings. Short moved to table discussion about paying county employees for a later meeting, but the motion was not seconded. Reynolds moved to approve the use of the funds, which Lampert seconded, and the motion passed 2-1. Lampert said it was the first time he had broken a tie in such a situation.

In other business, the commissioners approved Sheriff Tony Eells’ request for an assessment on the potential construction of a new county jail. His initial aim had been to build a large facility like the one in Shoshone County, which makes money by housing state inmates, but he learned that project would be cost-prohibitive. To establish a new plan, outside officials will come in and provide analysis of what kind of facility would make most sense for Benewah County.

The commissioners also approved a plan to draft a letter to the St. Maries city government that would request details about payments and other information ahead of their Nov. 17 workshop to determine how to proceed with contentions about owning and operating the water and sewer systems in the area.

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