Idaho college murders strain town financially as investigation expenses mount


(MOSCOW, Idaho) — A quadruple homicide rocked the quiet Idaho college hamlet of Moscow last year. But the financial repercussions are only now coming into focus.

“It was a tragic and horrible event that no one saw coming,” Moscow Mayor Art Bettge said. “A difficult six months.”

The city’s already slim budget is straining under the weight of the investigation’s mounting expenses. Even before the killings, the police department alone cost $7.2 million, Moscow officials told ABC News — several hundred thousand dollars more than the $6.9 million in property taxes brought in, police and city officials said.

The police department is the largest chunk of Moscow’s funding for basic government services, at more than a third of general fund expenditures, according to city budget reports reviewed by ABC News.

Now, overtime and other expenses are growing exponentially with the ongoing need for increased patrols and law enforcement work — and shouldered by a short-staffed force putting in long hours.

“Moscow is not awash in a funding excess,” the mayor told ABC News. “We run a very, very lean budget and the impact of the investigation has been felt on the budget.”

Bottom line, officials said: The ongoing cost of the killings has burned through cash that could have gone to benefit the community and fix up city infrastructure.

Around noon on Nov. 13, four University of Idaho students — Kaylee Goncalves, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin — were found stabbed to death at their off-campus house by officers responding at the scene. After an intensive hunt for more than six weeks, police zeroed in on a suspect: Bryan Kohberger, a 28-year-old criminology Ph.D. student at nearby Washington State University.

Kohberger was arrested on Dec. 30 in Pennsylvania, after driving cross-country to spend the holidays at his family home in Albrightsville, Pennsylvania.

Last Wednesday, a grand jury returned a multi-count indictment against Kohberger, including four counts of murder in the first degree. He is set to appear for his arraignment on Monday and enter a plea, according to court documents.

Even with a suspect in custody, the ongoing investigation has depleted Moscow’s coffers, and scrambled an already fragile balance sheet, city officials said.

“We weren’t prepared for this. This is such a horrific thing – how could you plan for this?” Moscow City Council member Sandra Kelly told ABC News.

“You budget for fires. You budget for floods. You prepare for natural disasters. This was not natural,” Kelly said. “The cost is astronomical. And of course you can’t skimp on keeping people safe. Yet, this is just not something you budget for – because it’s something you’d never dream could happen.”

Local business owner Mitchell Lopez, who co-owns the popular Main Street Mexican Restaurant “La Casa Lopez,” likened the effect of the killings to the COVID-19 pandemic’s pain.

“Owning and running a family business — we’ve always had our ups and downs — we’ve gone through two recessions, a pandemic and now, this unfortunate loss of life has caused the closest thing to the pandemic — in terms of financial loss — has been from these horrendous murders,” Lopez told ABC News.

His family moved to Moscow in 1994 and stayed for the vibrant culture and community atmosphere.

“We’ve all had some connection with these students — they ventured into our businesses, or they worked for us. We were all mourning. Completely heartbroken,” Lopez said. “This town emptied out so quickly, nobody would go out — they were scared. We’ve always been a very safe haven and this really caused a major financial burden on every business in the area.”

Before the killings, the mayor said his team had already planned to hike taxes by the allowed 3%, due to inflation and planned city improvement projects.

Investigating the four university murders diverts those additional dollars towards the extra police work.

“We’re just trying to tread fiscal water to avoid going under,” Bettge said.

After the killings, local law enforcement amped up their presence to ensure the safety of a community on edge, and to push forward the investigation. Security was posted outside the house where the four students were slain; patrols were increased on and around campus; and police accrued long overtime hours from round-the-clock work and evidence analyses even as they fielded an onslaught of national media attention.

Less than three weeks into the investigation last fall, the city had already incurred more than $70,000 in overtime and other expenses, according to a letter Mayor Bettge sent to Idaho Gov. Brad Little in early December, obtained by ABC.

That five-digit figure was expected to grow “to nearly $200,000 over the coming weeks as we face additional overtime, private security, data storage, and communications assistance costs,” Bettge wrote in the letter, and a further “significant financial burden” as the case unfolds.

Little has stepped in with roughly $93,000 reimbursement for public information expenses, overtime, security costs and electronic data storage, according to the governor’s office.

That will help but “does not cover the full, unanticipated impact on the budget,” Bettge said, adding, “That’s why we keep some reserves available to handle unexpected financial impacts.”

Some of those reserves come from money left over because of unfilled positions with the police department, the mayor said.

The Moscow Police Department has more than half a dozen vacant positions, Capt. Anthony Dahlinger said. They are down nine officers — a quarter of their full force.

When fully staffed, MPD has 36 sworn officers’ positions including the chief and command staff, Dahlinger told ABC News. They currently have 27 sworn and certified officers.

Those empty spots — and available, already appropriated financial resources — can offer a small financial “buffer” against unforeseen blows to their bottom line, Bettge said: Available “salary lapse” money from vacant MPD positions could be transferred toward upcoming infrastructure projects like renovating aging city buildings.

It now goes towards the homicide investigation, the mayor said.

“There was most certainly an impact due to the massive amount of hours worked,” Dahlinger said. “The true financial impact of the homicide investigation will not be known for quite some time as the case is still in process.”

While those other projects will eventually move forward, “it slows us down considerably and stops future investment in certain aspects of the city that clearly need to be done,” Bettge said, calling the situation a “complex puzzle” of “scarce resources.”

“It calls into question — if budgets really begin to get rough, where do you cut?” he said. “The community suffers … sooner or later something has to give, and I don’t know what that would be.”

The killings thrust Moscow into the national spotlight, with officials and citizens alike facing a flurry of media attention. With the case moving forward, Latah County will shoulder more of the financial burden, but meanwhile, grappling with the ongoing saga has required both additional dollars and manpower.

The city’s emergency medical services run on donated time: The Moscow Volunteer Fire Department’s roughly 60 emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics respond to as many as 2,000 medical calls a year on average, according to city statistics.

Moscow has contended with a “persistent” EMS staffing shortage, according to City Council strategic planning documents reviewed by ABC, which unaddressed, could create “significant damage” and have “widespread impact,” a majority of the city’s management leaders agreed.

“The Department is still trying to recruit/retain community volunteers and there are still challenges with paramedic coverage,” according to an April presentation of the Moscow Volunteer Fire Department Annual Report from fire chief Brian Nickerson.

The nearby university offers a seasonal labor pool for EMS volunteers that shrinks once classes let out — exacerbating that shortage, city officials told ABC.

“We do have less coverage when our student residents are out of school during breaks which does create challenges,” Nickerson said, “especially during the school breaks such as summer, Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring break,” even with the “very dedicated community volunteers” who work through those times.

The possibility of incentivizing summer volunteers with a weekly stipend is under discussion, officials said; where the money comes from remains an open question.

“You find cash for these major challenge areas that are identified as the truly important ones, and you make it happen. But stuff like this makes it a lot harder,” Bettge said.

This year, school lets out just as Kohberger’s highly scrutinized case is poised to move forward.

“For us, this is unknown territory. We’ve never gone through this before,” Bettge continued, pointing to his city’s resilience. “We’re feeling our way along as best we can to try to accommodate all of the needs — the competing needs: maintaining the city for our citizens — and seeing that justice is done.”

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