Minimum and adequate.

Those two words have Sheriff John Bishop and Curry County's three commissioners exasperated as they work to find a solution to fund the Sheriff's Office.

That office uses the largest portion of the general fund's discretionary money, which has been shrinking in recent years as the federal government has discontinued timber subsidies to Oregon's 18 OandC counties.

It's left Curry County with $2.1 million to fund public safety - including the sheriff, jail and juvenile department - and other mandated departments such as the clerk and recorder, treasurer and elections.

"I have said it two or three times at budget meetings: I am deeply concerned if we will be able to operate on the budget we have this year," Bishop told commissioners Wednesday. "We're on a shoestring. It's going to be a tight and difficult year."

To clear the confusion, commissioners invited Bishop to their regular meeting to outline what he is "mandated" to provide and what he feels is the "minimum" staffing levels to provide public safety in the county.

It's not that easy, he said.

All Oregon counties, he said, are mandated by the state constitution to have for public safety a sheriff, a district attorney and a jail - or at least access to jail beds for its inmates.

But then state laws and unfunded mandates enter the equation, requiring the county to hire people to staff the jail - and patrol deputies to put offenders in it. There is particular equipment required to be in the jail and vehicles need to be replaced.

He cited an example concerning a rescue near Sixes last weekend that required the use of lifeline ropes. Once a rope is used to haul a person, it cannot be used to do so again - and replacing a lifeline rope can run $700 for a 400-foot length.

Exacerbating the problem is that grants are drying up or becoming more competitive, requiring matching funds Curry County doesn't have, Bishop said. Homeland Security now bases some of its grant criteria on regional needs that might not be applicable to the county.

"Law enforcement is expensive," Bishop said. "And the jail is the largest part of the expense. It's just expensive. That's just facts."

Currently, Bishop operates with a skeleton crew of four patrol deputies, meaning his office is accruing overtime, deputies are falling behind on writing reports, and there are long periods during any given 24-hour period when no one is on duty, he said.

Additionally, the 43-bed jail is full, forcing the department to release the least dangerous of criminals back onto the streets.

"You get a young, new deputy and more violent criminals in the jail - it's a recipe for disaster," Bishop said. "Until we get (financial) stability, we're not fixing the problem. We're just kicking the can down the road."

All that opens the county up to liability issues, too, he noted.

Who wants what

State officials have told county commissioners the Sheriff's Office doesn't meet "adequate" - much less, "minimum" - levels of service.

This is not news to Bishop or the board.

In Bishop's eyes, a minimum of 12 deputies would be enough to bring the department to "minimum" staffing levels, providing coverage 24/7 throughout the county. That minimum staffing would cost $4.5 million.

But if a fiscal emergency is declared and the state comes in, officials could determine the minimum staffing levels Bishop feels are "adequate" are not enough. The state could then increase them - and pass the cost in an income tax surcharge to Curry County residents. (See related story in box to the right.)

"I don't think anything I tell you will be a shock to you," Bishop told commissioners of current conditions. "We are very understaffed. It's day to day with what I have. We're barely able to keep up - some would say we're not keeping up."

Commissioners sympathize, but have yet to come to agreement on the number of deputies Bishop might need as they craft a new property tax question.

Commissioner Susan Brown feels the six road deputies for which is department is budgeted this fiscal year must work until the board determines how to permanently fund the office. She also believes voters defeated the last property tax increase because they felt 12 deputies are too many.

She feels the county should get by with what it has now - four deputies - until a permanent funding source can be established.

Smith said Wednesday that 12 deputies might not be enough, but at another meeting later that afternoon proposed a tax levy that would pay for eight.

"It's not that we're trying to cut public safety," he said. "There isn't any more fat to cut. Public safety was the last one we were trying to keep whole."

Commissioner David Itzen asked if Bishop could make do with eight or nine deputies.

"Am I going to argue with you giving me eight?" Bishop asked. "No, I'll take what I can get. But we need 12 for minimum coverage."

The state

No one knows what the state wants - and that is crucial on two fronts.

First, county commissioners have about a month to craft a new property tax levy question for the November ballot. Revenue generated from that would pay for public safety services in the county, but it must first be determined what is needed before it can be funded.

Second, House Bill 3453 passed through the Legislature Monday and will allow the state to work with officials in distressed counties to restaff their departments to those "minimum" or "adequate" standards until the boards can solve their financial problems.

Nowhere in the bill does it indicate what those words mean.

Commissioners fear the state might view "minimum" or "adequate" levels of sheriff's department staffing as far higher than what residents think - or are willing to vote for.

"I didn't think 3453 had a prayer of getting through," Bishop said. "So for me to tell you what's in the governor's mind? andhellip; I have no idea."

The last thing he wants is for the state to come in because he - and the commissioners - don't want to lose local control.

"They might say, 'The mandate is vague, so we'll establish (standards),'" Bishop said. "They might say, 'This is what's minimum.' And they could do it across the board (in various county departments): 'This is what is minimum, and this is what it will cost.' It's all speculation."