Curry County Sheriff John Bishop told county commissioners Monday he’s been trying to work with them through their fiscal challenges, but he can no longer limp along with inadequate staff levels.
He added that, after much thought, he will need $1.6 million from the county’s road funds to even staff his department to “adequately functional” levels.
He and other department heads outlined their financial needs for next year during budget discussions Monday. The talks continue through the week and address the $57.3 million budget, of which only $2.11 million goes to the county’s general fund.
And law enforcement and the jail eat up most of the general fund dollars.
“This budget is quite different this year than in the past few years,” Bishop said of his request for $4.96 million. “My people are tired. They’re working at 180 percent. I’ve got to get them help. This is only doable by taking road money out. If we don’t take road money, we can’t do this budget.”
Currently, Bishop has 35 sworn law enforcement officers in nine departmental divisions.
The county, through a state law passed last summer that allows seven financially strapped O&C counties to take funds from their county’s road funds specifically for patrol deputies; that law sunsets in 2016. Curry County commissioners have twice taken funds from that coffer: two years ago for $700,000 and again last year for $950,000.
County Roadmaster Dan Crumley has fiercely protected the $36 million or so he has managed to save over the years for the roads and bridges in the county. County Accountant Gary Short noted in his budget message that if the state law allowing takings from road funds is extended, and if Curry County takes $1.5 million from that fund each year, it will be drained in five to six years.
Bishop said he’s well aware of Crumley’s rationale for protecting the road fund, but his department can no longer get by without a sustainable funding source.
“I have tried to be a team player in the past: ‘We can get by; we can get by; we can get by,’” Bishop said. “But my patrol deputies’ safety is paramount. We’re sending them on calls they should not be on by themselves.”
Additionally, costs have increased dramatically due to extra security needed for certain court trials, workloads at the appellate courts and liability issues.
Bishop had in this year’s budget the money to hire an additional six deputies, but between turnover and a dearth of applicants, he has been unable to keep those levels up. That money remains in the budget, and new deputies on staff are merely replacing others who have left.
“That time I told you we were full?” he said. “That lasted a day. In the jail, we have a significant amount of turnover. We could be down four in the next week. I have two now, and two in the academy. And all but one have less than two years experience. That inexperience allows them to be taken advantage of by inmates. We have issues.”
Hiring remains a challenge, he said, because the county pays among the lowest in the state for starting deputies and most who accept a position know it might not last considering the county’s fiscal plight.
“We’ve gone through the locals,” he said of hiring in the past year. “The only people I see getting is people who want to get trained, certified and leave. I can fight turnover if I have sustainable funding and low wages. I can fight turnover if I have unsustainable funding and good wages. But I cannot fight if we have unsustainable funding and low wages. It just sets me up for failure.”
General liability insurance has almost doubled since last year, too, to $25,200 from $16,131. It was only $10,500 three years ago, the budget indicates.
Bishop has managed to reduce food costs by contracting those services out — instead of paying a deputy to oversee kitchen operations — but inflation has caught up with those savings. He is asking for $100,000 to feed the inmates for the year, and noted he has yet to see a food budget increase since he took office.
“I’m to the point I don’t know what else I can do to save money,” Bishop said. “We’ve implemented everything we can. We’re right on the edge.”
He added that, due to state laws regarding mandatory sentencing, about half the people in the jail at any given time have yet to be sentenced — including a Port Orford man accused of attempted murder in January 2013 — or are mentally ill and shouldn’t be housed in a jail.
There is no “elsewhere” to go, however — another issue sure to be addressed in the next legislative session, Bishop said.
“Nobody knows what to do with these people, so they wind up in jail,” he said. “Statewide, about 30 percent of the prison population shouldn’t be there because of their mental health.”
Another budget item Bishop has been putting off in recent years is replacing aging vehicles.
Nationally, law enforcement vehicles are replaced after they’ve been driven 80,000 miles. Those 80,000 miles are hard-ridden ones, the industry states, and are equivalent to a personal vehicle going about 160,000 miles.
“We’re not at 100,000 miles,” Bishop said. “We’re at 150,000. We’re playing Russian roulette.”
He wants six new patrollers on the road, and two supervisors. That will bring coverage in the 1,600 square miles that is Curry County to 24/7, with two deputies per shift. It doesn’t fully take into account vacation and sick time.
“I don’t want anyone coming in who’s sick,” Bishop said. “They infect two or three others, they could wipe us out.”
Bishop oversees not just his patrol deputies, jail personnel and the civil department, but search and rescue, communications, parole and probation, forest and marine patrols and the Harbor substation.
Of all those, the substation at the Port of Brookings Harbor is faring the best, with criminal complaint calls from the port manager down to one a week from seven since the station was relocated from the Brookings-Harbor Shopping Center to the port property.
Search and rescue survives on Title III money and donations, and the marijuana patrol is an unfunded mandate.
Marine patrol, however, frustrates Bishop. As sheriff, he is responsible for — and is funded a proportional amount of money from the state to protect — Curry County’s waterways. But those waterways don’t include the ocean on which his deputies often work, as the state marine board says that would give him an unfair monetary advantage over inland counties in meting out operational dollars.
There are six rivers in Curry County and one, the Rogue, hosts an average of 100,000 rafters each season — and has four to six deaths at the Blossom Bar each summer to which the Sheriff’s Office’s search and rescue responds.
As of this year, the U.S. Forest Service will no longer have a jet boat, and the Oregon State Patrol doesn’t assist on river rescues, so it is all up to him.
Political jargon complicates jurisdiction, as well.
“We are the only ones who can get to Blossom Bar,” Bishop said. “And it’s a misnomer that the Coast Guard does everything in the ocean. We are the ones who have to go in the ocean. Us and the state police respond to 3 miles out.”
A good example of jurisdictional confusion was exemplified in the fishing boat that sunk earlier this year in the Chetco River channel. The U.S. Coast Guard has laws regarding them working in that particular location, so they asked Bishop if his office would help.
His deputies were out there for three days until the boat could be extricated from the channel bottom and floated into harbor.
Forest law enforcement is faring well, but losing money to firefighting ranks.
“They’ve become a major firefighting machine,” Bishop said, “and everything else has taken a step back.”
He said he has misgivings about taking from the road fund, but urged commissioners to do so anyway.
“I’m doing the right thing to keep citizens safe,” Bishop said. “Forget the liability — just do the right thing. That’s what gets me to sleep at night. And citizens? I’m telling you as your sheriff. This is what I need.”