Law enforcement, county and city officials from throughout the state met Thursday in Salem to discuss successes – and failures – in their attempts to adequately fund sheriffs’ offices in these fiscally tight times.
Consolidation, collaboration, the realignment of districts, committees of every sort, obtaining voter support for new revenue and citizen participation were all outlined.
Curry County Sheriff John Bishop dismissed each one.
“We have vetted all these ideas for the past five years, and it hasn’t worked,” he told the group of about 100 via video conferencing. “We have had two Blue Ribbon committees. We’ve had consultants. We’ve worked with Oregon Solutions and citizens. Now it’s the Kitchen Table. We’ve been active with legislators. They’re different spins, but they’re all the same ideas.”
Some ideas that have worked well for larger cities and more populated counties won’t work in Curry County because the county is so isolated. Economies of scale – consolidating seemingly redundant services such as police and sheriff – wouldn’t pass muster with voters or result in much savings.
Demographical differences are the primary reason. Curry County is not as wealthy as its big-city counterparts. Cities within it aren’t close enough to each other – or even to cities in nearby counties – to merge or collaborate.
Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts said the key to his county’s success in getting long-term funding was education and media saturation. In 1992, the county proposed a 72-cent property tax increase that voters nixed.
Two years later, it passed with a 53 percent majority, as it did again every five years when it came up for renewal. When they spent time and money on educating the electorate, that tax levy approval rate went to 75 percent in 2006.
“Five times we tried to get an enhanced district or levy,” Bishop said. “All of them failed miserably. We’re giving Josephine County a good run for its money; look how many times it’s failed.”
He pointed out to the other officials that Curry County’s voters are adamantly opposed to tax increases. Curry County has the second-lowest property tax rate in the state, at 59 cents per $1,000 assessed value, followed only by Josephine County at 58 cents per $1,000.
“Our citizens, particularly in the O&C lands, think that the federal government is going to bail them out at the last second,” Bishop said. “And the reason for that is because the federal government has done exactly that, at the last second, for years.”
When county officials cry “poor” and the federal government swoops in and rescues them, it undermines the credibility of the local officials, as well.
“There is a deep distrust between the citizens and government,” he said. “We didn’t need that to begin with. We (as a department) have tremendous support from citizens, but we still can’t get a levy passed.”
Roberts said he never imagined that as a sheriff he’d have to get out and campaign. But that’s what he did. And it worked, he said.
His county used funding solicited from the law enforcement’s union and began phone bank campaigns, polling, meeting with critics and saturating the media. In Klamath County, the realtors’ public action committee chipped in to conduct similar work.
Those avenues, Bishop said, wouldn’t work in Curry County because the local union membership is too low and has little money to spend. The polling alone cost $17,000.
The idea of separating the sheriff’s department – jail, district attorney and juvenile among them – and asking for levy approvals on each wouldn’t work either, because one cannot operate without the other.
An argument Bishop often hears from those living in incorporated cities is that they pay for the increased coverage and protection from their own police departments and, therefore, shouldn’t have to pay for the county sheriff. But that doesn’t take into account that the cities need to use the county jail, the district attorney’s services and juvenile support in the course of arrests and prosecutions.
“That’s like saying, ‘I don’t want to pay the federal taxes because I already pay state taxes,’” Bishop said. “That’s been a major argument in Curry County.”
Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett said a 2004 levy failed there because they ignored basic scientific behavioral elements. For example, wording – from mailing to ballots – must be scrutinized to make sure the implication in the question is what they want to ask.
They learned that merely asking for a levy increase was more likely to get voter approval if details about how the money is to be spent is included. Washington County focused on its methamphetamine and child pornography problems – and voters approved the question.
And stakeholders – particularly the critics – need to be involved.
Deschutes County Sheriff Larry Blanton said public relations is key to voter buy-in. He suggested inviting high-profile citizens to meetings, returning every call and email and following up on calls to which they’ve responded.
“You can’t just campaign (for money),” he said. “The philosophy is to convince people that what you’re selling is worth buying. And that can take a long time.”
He cited Lane County, once the showcase for law enforcement.
“They were the law enforcement of the state,” Blanton said. “They had helicopters, motorcycles, a state-of-the-art jail. I don’t know what happened, but the community is no longer buying what you’re selling.”
Community involvement – encouraging sheriff’s deputies to attend events, hosting free document shredding events in conjunction with a food drive or “Shop with a Cop” events at the holidays – allows citizens to see their officers mingling with the public.
Critics can be given tours of the jail to see conditions there; sometimes citizens can go on “ride-alongs” with officers.
“Don’t involve your supporters; you’re wasting your time,” Blanton said. “Pretty soon you don’t have to tell people what you want. People will tell other people.”
Bishop doesn’t know what to do next, but hasn’t given up hope, either.
“It takes all of us to make this work,” he said. “Without that, all of us will collapse. We’ll continue until none of us are left because there’s no funding left. That’s six months away. We’ll see when the new (commissioner) board gets seated.
“Our job is public safety,” he added. “It’s their job to get us the money for what we need.”