Stress is killing Curry County Sheriff John Bishop.
The stress — fiscal insecurity in his department, huge turnover among his deputies, the constant fighting on behalf of his employees, an inability to get support to fund public safety — has prompted him to give notice and take a job in Salem.
“My doctor said you might want to think about getting out of this line of work,” Bishop said. “He said, ‘If you don’t get out of this job, you’re going to die young.’ I had to make a decision: Do I want to be around for my family or put myself out there 1,000 percent like I have been.”
Bishop has accepted a position as executive director with the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association in Salem. His wife, a parole and probation officer for the county, is applying for the lead probation officer position in Albany.
Bishop, who came from the Brookings Police Department, has been fighting since his first month on the job in 2008 to get adequate funding for his department. It was in the ensuing years that O&C revenue began to taper off; nothing is slated in the next legislative session to address timber subsidies.
In the past two years, that fight has led to two failed property tax hike measures on the ballot — another one is slated for Sept. 16 to fund the jail — a decimation of his ranks as deputies train here and leave for places that pay more, and an overburdened staff in an aging jail facility.
In his new position — a “behind the scenes, much less stressful” job, he said — Bishop will deal more with the state legislature regarding law enforcement issues statewide. His pay is being negotiated, but he said it will be about one and a half times more than his current salary — $69,000 — plus benefits. He will also be eligible for a pension and have health benefits.
“It was a great deal,” Bishop said. “I was honored the sheriffs across the state wanted me to do it.”
The Sheriffs’ Association is a nonprofit organization that works at the legislative level on behalf of sheriffs across the state. Bishop submitted a letter of interest, the executive board of the organization recommended it and the 36 sheriffs voted him in.
Bishop will replace interim manager Darrell Fuller, who will return as lobbyist to the group.
His last day here could be as late as the end of September or as early as the end of August, he said. His family’s original plans were for Bishop’s wife, Kris, to stay in Curry County and commute to visit, until state officials pointed out there was a position that fit her experience in Albany. She has been with the Sheriff’s Office for 19 years.
“That (element of the story) can’t be missed,” Bishop said. “My wife will leave a big hole. She is as significant to that department as I am to the whole agency. She is very well respected around the state, she’s on numerous task forces around the state — she has 19 years in parole and probation; the next person to her has two years. The experience that will be lost is going to be a huge hole to fill.”
If Kris gets the job she seeks, her salary will be more than what Bishop makes today as sheriff.
The move will put the couple closer to family: their oldest son lives in Albany and their daughter in Portland. Their youngest child is in middle school here. But they will leave behind Bishop’s father and Kris’s parents.
Filling big shoes
Bishop admits it will be a challenge to replace him — he modestly declined the idea that it’s because of his exemplary work in the community — but because of the county’s financial situation.
His is one of the lowest paid sheriffs in the state, and he struggles with keeping the ranks staffed because of equally low pay offered to deputies. When positions come open — or when they stay open for months on end — people don’t even apply because they are unsure what will happen to the county as it trudges closer to its fiscal abyss.
“Everyone’s replaceable,” Bishop said, adding that he’s working on a plan to make his departure a smooth transition. “If I can do the plan I want to do, it’ll be a good plan. There’s still a lot of pieces of the puzzle that have to be put together. Give us a month or two to work together and, when I go out the back door, they’ll hit the ground running. It’ll be a little bumpy road, but it’ll smooth out.”
He informed his employees of his intentions Wednesday, and will discuss his plan with them next week.
County commissioners will appoint a replacement; the seat will come up for election in November.
The bumpy road ahead
For all the remorse he has in leaving, he expressed some frustration in a letter he scrambled to write Friday for the county commissioners.
“This county has been my home and my family’s home since the ’40s, and it kills me to see where it is headed in the next year,” Bishop said. “I truly hope you as commissioners can come together, find an answer, and convince the citizens before it is too late.”
If commissioners had been able to secure stable funding for his department, and if voters had approved property tax measures to do so, Bishop might have stayed, he said.
“First, the stress would’ve been a whole lot less, and second, when you’re constantly battling day after day after day after day to find money, keeping people employed, hiring good people — turnover’s been horrific, the low pay, the instability — it makes it extremely difficult. It adds a whole lot of stress. That’s the major contributing factor.
“I’ve enjoyed great support from the public; it’s just, you know, I’m tired. One person can only do so much.”
After an initial phone interview, Bishop repeatedly called the Pilot back to express his pride in his employees.
“They work their butts off day after day after day,” he said. “With all the negativity, the low pay, the politics, and they come to work every day. We took an agency that was in complete disarray — the employees didn’t even like themselves — and turned it around. We are very well respected around the state. Any time you can leave somewhere and can say you left it better, then I think you’ve done your job.”
He fears for the county.
“If something doesn’t change, the county is going to go under next year — there’s no way around it,” Bishop said. “Whether it’s June, August (2015), there’s just not enough money to sustain county services. They can’t continue to take money from the road fund; they can’t continue to operate this way.”
As to who might apply for his job?: “There’s the million dollar question,” he said.
He doesn’t know if his lieutenants are interested in the job, particularly as they make almost as much as he does in their positions.
“I don’t even think they’re interested,” he said. “Why would you do it?”
But to whomever is appointed, Bishop has one piece of advice.
“If this is truly what you want to do, you should live by the three rules I live by: You do what’s right, you treat others as you would like to be treated, and you do the absolute best that you can,” he said. “If you do that, you will always come out. People may not like you, or agree with your decision, but if you feel it’s right and that’s best you can do, that’s the best way to go.
“I live by that.”