SHERIFF: LEVY NECESSARY TO PROTECT PUBLIC'S SAFETY

April 20, 2001 11:00 pm
Sheriff Kent Owens explains how his department gets very little from property taxes. ().
Sheriff Kent Owens explains how his department gets very little from property taxes. ().

The $2.6 million public safety levy of Sheriff Kent Owens was debated for nearly two hours by a small but enthusiastic audience at a Chetco Community Council Forum Thursday night in Brookings.

Owens and Capt. Mark Metcalf were joined in their presentation by Dan Brattain and Ken Wood of Cal-Ore Life Flight and Curry County Commissioner Cheryl Thorp.

Also speaking in favor of the levy were Curry County Commissioner Lucie La Bont, Public Defenders Office Investigator Don Flynn, retired police officer Dan Palicki, and Les Cohen, executive director of the Brookings-Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

Those people said they were speaking as private citizens and not officially representing their organizations.

Unfortunately, most of the 20 people attending the forum appeared to be friends or relatives of those speaking on behalf of the levy.

The forum was the last of four held by Owens during the week. He estimated turnouts of 10 in Gold Beach, 10 in Port Orford, and more than 20 in Agness.

Owens is asking for 32 cents per $1,000 of property value for five years to produce a total of $2,605,527.

He said that is the equivalent of a tank of gas a month for someone with a $100,000 house, or two family meals at McDonalds.

La Bont used a technique she learned years ago while selling encyclopedias and said the levy adds up to a dime a day.

For that, said Owens, the sheriffs department will add six patrol deputies, one sergeant, one detective, three patrol cars, and a used car for the detective.

Without the additional six deputies, said Owens, the county has no deputy on duty anywhere for eight hours a day.

That means a deputy has to be called out of bed if the situation is serious enough, but the department is so short-handed there may be no one on duty at night to make the decision.

That means a phone call in the middle of the night to Owens, Metcalf or Lt. Allen Boice to determine if a deputy should be called out of bed.

You dont go back to sleep after that, said Owens. You lay there and worry What if a serious crime happens? and you didnt send anybody.

Thats a nightmare we live with constantly, he said.

If the levy passes, there will be six deputies for the north/central county, and six for the south. Each area will be covered with at least one deputy on duty every hour of the day and night.

With the extra sergeant, there would be someone on duty at night to make decisions or even go out and back up the deputy on duty.

Owens said that can be critical when a deputy is facing a domestic violence or weapons situation alone.

He said the detective is needed because deputies dont have time to properly follow up cases now.

The result is cases that dont hold up in court and more criminals out on the streets.

Owens said as important as those criminal issues are, there is a lot more at stake.

He said it is dangerous for anyone to drive on the river roads now. With no patrols, people drive any way they want to.

The result has been fatalities in the south county and a near fatality along the Rogue River. In that case, a young woman was critically injured when her car left the road and landed in a tree.

An alert deputy spotted the signs of a car going through the brush. Owens said it was just luck that the deputy found her and was able to summon help in time to save her life. He said everyone also knows that the minor in possession parties take place up the rivers.We need to be visible on all these river roads to check that.

Owens said transients move up and down U.S. Highway 101 and stop to commit crimes in areas where they dont see patrols.

Owens said people have asked him why he cant run his department on what they pay in property taxes.

He said they dont understand that if a person pays $400 in property taxes, only 6.57 percent of that goes to fund county government, and only half of that goes to the sheriff.

The levy funds, however, would all go to the sheriffs department.

Metcalf said the department would have to maintain a separate budget for the levy money. Every dollar would be audited, line item by line item, to make sure it went to what the levy said it was intended for. Metcalf then gave the presentation he has given so often during the last few months, showing where each dollar would go.

His charts showed everything from how much would go to workmans compensation tax for a patrol deputy in the first year, to the one-time cost of each ballistic vest. Those figures are $83 and $1,000, respectively.

One citizen asked if the department could use cars forfeited from criminal cases.

Metcalf said the department has done that in the past, but a new state law now restricts forfeitures. He said they still save money by buying retired forest service vehicles.

Owens said deputies must serve 1,200 to 1,500 civil papers a year. A citizen asked if the fees for that could be raised, but Metcalf said the state legislature sets the fees.

Owens and Thorp were asked if the commissioners could siphon money out of the sheriffs budget in the future and use the levy as backfill. Owens said he was afraid the previous commissioners would have done exactly that, so he wanted a guarantee written into the previous levy. He learned the commissioners couldnt legally make such a guarantee. They cant impose binding fiscal agreements on future commissioners.

Within that restriction, however, Thorp and La Bont gave the levy their highest possible support and said they have no intention of cutting the sheriffs budget if the levy passes. Thorp said she wasnt as convinced about Owens previous levy, but after two years as liaison to the sheriffs department, she has learned how serious the problems are.

I cant speak highly enough for the need for public safety, she said, and added that all three commissioners support the levy.

La Bont said, We have a balanced budget now. The levy wont affect what we do with the budget.

She said the commissioners didnt have to cut the sheriffs budget this year, and actually increased Owens search and rescue budget with federal funds.

I cant say what will happen next year, or what the new commissioner will do, she said. People should look at whether the whole county is being funded enough.

Owens thanked the commissioners for bringing the funding problems to the publics attention.

The county is in pretty sad shape, he said, fiscally broke.

He said that cant be fixed in a year or two. Meanwhile, funding for public safety must be stabilized. Thats why he went to the citizens with his levy.

Its hard to stand up here when taxes are high and ask for more, he said, but I have a responsibility for the safety of the public and deputies.

Brattain said one of the top priorities at Cal-Ore Life Flight is making sure its employees are safe. He said their medics cant enter places with weapons, suicide or other danger, until officers have secured the scene.

In a drug overdose case in Harbor Wednesday, the Brookings police had to secure the scene for 15 minutes until a deputy could get there. The Brookings officers cant go far, however, and leave their own city unprotected. They often have only one officer on duty. Owens said they rarely risk going more than two to four miles out of the city limits.

Wood has worked for the ambulance company for 11 years. He said there are a lot of gunshot wounds in the community. He and his crew cant respond until the scene is secured, according to state law.

He said he recently had to wait outside 15 minutes for the Brookings police to come and secure the scene until he could help the victim of an accidental gunshot. The county deputy was in Port Orford.

Wood said a call can develop into a domestic situation and the medics have to back out and call for a deputy. Our lives are in danger, he said.

Owens said sheriffs deputies are not only needed for emergency responders, but to back up city officers. He said Port Orford and Gold Beach cant provide 24-hour coverage within their own cities.

La Bont said the Brookings police dont have the resources to handle the drug problem, so they work closely with narcotics detectives from the county and state.

Palicki said the levy was like an insurance policy. You only use it when you really need it. Its cheap at twice the price.

Flynn said he worked for the sheriff for seven years, and has spent more than four years with the Public Defenders Office. He called the levy an insurance policy that helps you keep healthy.

He said the deterrent effect of patrol cars being out there prevents crime. When crime does happen, deputies and detectives need time to build strong cases.

Flynn said he often uncovers things that benefit the defense attorney. He said if the deputies werent busy running from case to case, they would find the same things to help the prosecution.

On the other hand, said Flynn, if the deputies had more time, they would also discover more clues to false accusations, which could keep innocent people from being charged.

Either way, said Flynn, justice would be served with more deputies and detectives. Cohen said the cities are small islands. He said people have to pass through territory protected only by the sheriff.

He said any Brookings resident could get into an accident in Harbor and need a deputy.

Id gladly pay $32 or $64 more a year to have coverage when Im traveling, he said.

He also said Owens was wrong about taxes being high. He said Curry County has the lowest or second lowest tax rate in the state.

We are not overtaxed, he said, and earned applause from most of the audience.

Metcalf said more than a 50 percent voter turnout is needed to pass the levy. If it does pass, the county could start searching for new deputies in July.