SPIRIT LAKE, Idaho — Ralph Wheeler doesn't feel bitterness when the property tax bill for his home arrives in the mailbox, as reported by KREM 2 news partner the Coeur d'Alene/Post Falls Press.
"It's disappointing," he said softly while sitting down for an interview with The Press.
Wheeler wasn't referring to his dues. What upsets the 89-year-old, he said, is that his money goes toward services and infrastructure that disrupt what Wheeler cherishes most — North Idaho's natural resources.
"It's almost devastating to see what is happening to us here," he said.
Like many property owners throughout the Panhandle, the assessed market value of Wheeler's Spirit Lake home has grown dramatically. Wheeler built the house himself and finished construction in 2000. At the time, his 3,000-square-foot, three-bed, three-bath home was appraised at about $86,000.
According to his 2020 Kootenai County assessment, the home's valuation is up nearly 500% over those 20 years, to $487,912.
Wheeler's back porch overlooks Old Mill Pond on the other side of Spirit Lake. The area gets its name from its former use as a sawmill, he explained. After the facility was closed, Wheeler said, the pond became a wildlife habitat for deer, elk, moose, and turkeys.
"They're not here anymore," Wheeler said, sipping a coffee while looking out the dining room window. "I don't think that the people coming here realize the effect they have on the habitat they like to see."
Trailing behind the assessment value is Wheeler's property tax bill, which has seen highs and lows. 2018 was the most notable increase, jumping 25.5% from $4,904.68 to $6,156.28, according to county documents.
After receiving the bill, Wheeler wrote the county treasurer to express why he was upset. Part of the letter, which Wheeler provided to The Press, spoke about his financial shock.
"I am now 86 and plan to retire one of these days," Wheeler's 2018 letter said. "If I want to keep my property, it looks like retirement will not be soon."
However, most of the letter highlighted Wheeler's beliefs that "those causing this increased need for more tax money should be the ones providing the funds."
"Those" people, he wrote, are the developers and new residents who require more "roads, traffic controls, schools and associated support for this growth."
"No one seems to realize that this rapid increase in all of this is destroying the various natural resources that cause people to live in North Idaho," Wheeler's 2018 letter said. "These people and the new people they cause to move here are the ones that should pay for all the support needed as a result of this invasion."
The county collects property taxes to provide services and support local taxing districts like cities, schools, emergency services and highway districts. After the taxed amount is defined and sent in the mail each November, property owners pay their bill through two installments — one in December, the other in June.
In 2020, the Wheelers paid $4,625.32 in property taxes:
City of Spirit Lake — $1,585.14
Lakeland School District — $1,056.99
Kootenai County — $879.68
Spirit Lake Fire District — $357.25
North Idaho College — $289.61
Lakes Highway District — $198.31
Community Library Network — $114.24
Solid Waste — $88
Kootenai Emergency Services — $50.36
Aquifer Protection District — $5.74
Despite being 89 years young, Wheeler continues to work as a forester for agencies and independent landowners. For decades, Wheeler's expertise has assisted the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Idaho Department of Lands, and private developers.
Spending the brunt of his life outdoors, 43 of those years in North Idaho, has been a blessing, Wheeler said. But, it also means he's seen firsthand how the landscape has changed.
"The very thing that draws people to North Idaho is rapidly being destroyed," Wheeler said. "Because the land that used to feed those animals is where all the people are living now."
Paying those numbers after the dollar sign isn't an issue, Wheeler said. Of course, the Spirit Lake resident admitted he doesn't like it when the bill pulls an additional $1,000 from his account.
But what truly bothers Wheeler is the feeling that he's "paying for the destruction."
"If we were doing it right in this country and our politicians were doing their job properly, they would be putting the burden on those that are gaining from this growth," Wheeler said. "We have all these people coming in, investing and putting the burden on people like me."
"Maybe if we put the burden back on them, we'd reduce this down to a reasonable level. But I don't think that's going to happen because the practice has not been that way."
Coeur d'Alene Press is a KREM 2 news partner. For more from our news partner, click here.