Mental health and a steady source of funding - not deputies on the road, jail expenses or even budget challenges - is gradually proving itself to be the top concern of law enforcement officials throughout Oregon's 36 counties.

That emerged again in the third Public Safety Summit held in Columbia County that attracted scores of sheriffs, district attorneys and elected officials from the surrounding areas last week to discuss challenges facing counties' budgets in general and law enforcement in particular.

"AOC (Association of Oregon Counties) President Earl Fisher has made it clear the summits are being held to develop a coordinated effort to identify opportunities to alleviate the public safety crisis that counties face, or will soon face," said Eric Schmidt, communications manager for the agency. "In order to be successful we must have a unified coalition of county officials: commissioners, sheriffs, DAs, corrections, mental and public health and juvenile."

The summit was held to determine priorities that should be addressed in law enforcement, to define "adequate" levels of public safety, how to develop positive relationships among elected officials, regain the trust of citizens and brainstorm intergovernmental partnerships and countywide plans to help fiscally challenged counties.

"This is a societal issue (mental health)," said Sheriff John Bishop. "It's affecting counties now but cities will be affected if the counties continue to struggle."

A united front

Sheriffs throughout the state, many frustrated by an unwillingness of voters to approve tax increases to fund their departments and an increase in crime due to budget cuts in OandC counties, hope to reach a consensus about those challenges and present a united front to legislators concerning the issues for the 2015 state legislative session.

The first Public Safety Summit was initiated by Curry County Commissioner David Itzen and held in Gold Beach in January. It was held to determine how to convince voters to support law enforcement in counties whose federal timber subsidies were dramatically slashed in 2012, leading to massive shortfalls in county general funds.

A second summit was held in Jackson County about a month later, and those in attendance there also agreed mental health is one of the highest priorities that needs to be addressed in law enforcement.

A group from Columbia County last week said they believe a key federal or state initiative should be to fully fund mandated law enforcement services, perhaps by even allocating a guaranteed 1 percent of the state budget to counties for those services.

Second in consideration for that group was funding the deputy district attorneys; currently only the district attorneys are paid by the state. Third was jail and mental health funding.

Those in the Portland metro area group were more interested in obtaining a statewide property tax rate to make funding more equitable. Second on their list was the possibility of implementing a sales tax dedicated to public safety and funding for mental health.

"There is a lot of agreement about what the issues and challenges are, and there are some areas that clearly stand out as potential places to make a positive difference," Schmidt said. "It won't be easy, but Mr. Fisher and Director (Mike) McArthur are confident we will prevail in putting together a package that will provide our communities with an effective and efficient public safety system."

Bishop isn't sure how strong even a united front will be when it faces legislators next year.

"There were a lot of good ideas, but most of them have to go to the legislature, and I think legislators are going to have other matters that are more important to them," he said. "It's going to have to be bigger than the sheriffs; it's going to have to be the counties. The problem you have is that some - Washington, Multnomah, Marion - are fully funded. I don't know if they'll get on board and use their clout to help us."

That was echoed in a letter State Rep. Carolyn Tomei of Milwaukie sent to legislators late last month.

"When reading about the lack of basic services in our rural counties, let's not forget that voters in those districts have refused to pay for their own services," she wrote. "Their property tax rates are incredibly low. Instead, they want the people of the entire state, who already pay dearly for local services, to pay for rural services as well.

"Before the state shoulders additional costs to service these rural areas, let make sure that all local districts pay their fair share."

"What they say in meetings and what they do when the rubber hits the road remains to be seen," Bishop said of elected officials who have attended the summits. "I don't know. I think it's great we're having these conversations, and we are better today than we were six months ago with ideas, but it still will take a united front."

Defining "adequate" levels

Another major issue the summits have tried to address is what "adequate levels" of county services even means.

That issue was brought up after voters again defeated property tax increases on various ballots throughout the state - one assumption is that they are happy with current levels of service - and because House Bill 3453, passed last summer, reads in part that if the county can't solve its fiscal woes, the state can restaff county employee ranks to a level it feels is adequate.

Most of those at the summits said more public participation is necessary to determine what voters want and are willing to pay for, but getting them to approve tax increases will require solid data.

Curry County residents are well aware of the challenges Bishop faces.

He has six road deputies to patrol more than 1,600 square miles of territory, and sometimes calls in remote areas must be taken care of by other law enforcement officials, usually police from neighboring cities. Deputies double up duties in the jail to ensure safety, and ranks are stretched thin when the courts need additional security or a prisoner needs to be transported elsewhere.

Regaining the trust of citizens is key, too, they agreed, particularly if elected officials are asking for increased taxes to support county-wide operations.

Suggestions at the summits ranged from the simple: getting to know citizens and soliciting their ideas about law enforcement improvements; to more difficult endeavors such as merging redundant city and county departments, such as 911 communications.

The next opportunity to discuss the public safety crisis facing Oregon counties will be at the AOC Spring Conference, June 8 to 10 in Hood River County, where a legislative package might be discussed.