Saving the county jail is sheriff’s top priority

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer March 29, 2013 10:44 pm

Curry County Sheriff John Bishop told county commissioners and the budget committee Wednesday his top priority in the 2013-2014 budget discussions is to save the jail, even if it’s at the expense of other departments.

“In my opinion, the jail should be the absolute No. 1 item funded before anything else,” Bishop said. “Everything evolves from that. What’s left over in the $2.1 million goes to everything else. We have to have this. I don’t see any other way around it.”

The county is in the midst of discussion — much of which will be give and take — about its finances, whether they’re working with a $6.6 million budget or one a third that size.

The county currently collects about $2.1 million with its property tax of 59 cents per $1,000 assessed value — the second lowest in the state.

If a tax levy proposal is approved by voters May 21, the county will see an additional $4.5 million a year in its general fund. Those funds would be dedicated to public safety, and the remaining $2.1 million generated from the existing property tax would be used by other vital departments in the county.

If the tax levy fails, however, all county operations that tap the general fund will have to make do with $2.1 million — an amount all involved say is far less than inadequate.

“It’s not a functional budget at $2.1 million,” Bishop said. “That’s living in fairy-tale land.”

The largest chunk in the general fund is spent on public safety and Bishop was among the first to address the budget committee regarding his department’s needs.

“I’m somewhat at a loss where we’re going,” Bishop said about budget drafted to show the community what county services would look like with so few operating funds. “So this is a completely different (proposal) than the one you presented. I went a different philosophical route.”

For want of a nail ...

To keep the jail he needs $1.5 million.

Keeping the jail, however, means there would be no money for 911. Patrol deputies would become jail deputies. Public safety personnel would include only the sheriff — an elected and required position — Lt. John Ward, who would become a deputy, Det. Dave Gardner, civil administrator Andrea Stone and Emergency Services Coordinator Don Kendall.

Bishop’s proposed budget would require shuttering the substation in Harbor.

He would lose about 12 full-time employees.

“Overtime will be huge,” Bishop said. “And Detective Gardner — I can keep him busy for another six to eight months right now without another big case coming along. If other big cases open, they wouldn’t get prosecuted without a detective.”

And, Bishop added, the county would be one major natural disaster — or something as small as one heart attack in the jail — away from decimating the year’s budget.

If an evacuation were needed somewhere in the county, it would be impossible.

“No way,” Bishop said. “No way we could do it. We have a high potential of a devastating fire blowing through the belt created by the Biscuit Fire and today, I don’t have enough people to do it.”

Some services wouldn’t be affected as severely. Search and Rescue, while under the auspices of the Sheriff’s Office, and Parole and Probation, are funded by state dollars. The District Attorney and juvenile department’s funding are included in the proposed tax increase, so the county would have an “extra” $500,000 in its general fund. Commissioners have tentatively earmarked those funds for building maintenance and county commissioner budgets.

The idea of consolidating 911 and emergency communications with, say, the city of Brookings, could work, but getting to that point would be very difficult, Bishop said. Every agency that uses the communications system — sheriff, marine, two ambulance services, 13 fire departments and numerous others — would have to unanimously agree to opt out of the existing system and unanimously agree to enter into a new one.

“I don’t have the time to go there,” Bishop said. “That would take a minimum of two years.”

The jail, investigations and civil services are the major services the Sheriff’s Office supplies.

But, Bishop noted, his deputies also serve as medical examiners — a lesser known and often-used service.

“OK, here’s an example,” Bishop said. “You live in Harbor. One day you wake up and your wife is dead. Natural causes. This happens every day. The funeral home can’t get the body until the county deputy releases it. Unless you want to fly someone from Medford, you’re going to have the body there until one of us three can release it. That is every day.”

More money

John Spicer, an attorney who sits on the budget committee, said he didn’t think other county operations could survive on the remaining $600,000 if Bishop’s request for $1.5 million is approved.

He lives in rural Curry County and periodically thinks about his safety under the currently reduced law enforcement presence. He told a story of a client he represented who had shot another man.

“He knew there were diminished patrols, so he came here,” Spicer said. “This isn’t going to be a secret.”

“We aren’t giving adequate service right now,” said Commissioner David Brock Smith. “People are calling every day and we can’t do anything.”

Commissioner David Itzen reminded the committee that state Department of Emergency Services supervisor Michael Jordan told the county last year the county was already dysfunctional.

The county could again raid the road funds as it did last year to meet general fund budget demands, but commissioners are hesitant to do so. There is about $30 million in the road fund, but that doesn’t go far in maintaining and repairing county roads.

The board could take money from the PERS and unemployment funds that total about $710,000 — again with dim hopes of repaying those.

Bishop requested the commissioners present more definitive figures with which to work. Itzen noted the committee and board need input from other departments to determine their minimal needs if they are to work with a collective $600,000.

“I’m not sure we can make it work,” Bishop said. “I’m not sure we’ll survive on this budget. I have looked and looked and looked. And I’m not sure how to put a square peg in a round hole.”

If voters say ‘yea’

If voters approve the property tax increase, however, Bishop has ideas for what he calls his “good budget.”

The entire pot of revenue generated from the levy would be dedicated to public safety, so he envisions 12 deputies — the minimum needed to have two on duty 24/7 — to keep the Harbor substation open and maintain 911 services.

“That wouldn’t be 100 percent perfect, but it’d be a hell of a lot better than we have now,” Bishop said. “It would by no means be a dream.”

“What can we legally and morally ... do without?” Itzen asked Bishop regarding other county services. “We haven’t come up with that yet. The Citizens Committee didn’t come up with that, the elected officials didn’t come up with it. … I want you to tell me what we can do without, and you haven’t been able to do that either.

“We’re at the end of the road. There’s no federal calvary coming over the hill; you can’t even hear the bugle.”

Another discussion in the background is that if the levy fails, commissioners will likely have to put another on the November ballot. That leaves six months to create a new plan — be it a levy for a permanent public safety special district or another temporary one to buy more time — in which time the county will be spending money.

That situation, which commissioners call the “burn the county down” option, would mean the county would be completely out of money sometime in May 2014.

And if another levy is placed and approved on the November ballot, revenue from that would not be realized for a full year, prompting Commissioner David Brock Smith to ask how the county intended to bridge the gap from July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year, to November 2014. No one has provided that answer.

The challenge of getting the levy passed is still a hurdle to overcome.

“If we can’t get three commissioners together and three cities on board, it will be extremely difficult for anything to pass, Bishop said.