Could Curry become like Josephine?

Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer December 27, 2013 09:02 pm

Elected officials from O&C counties might look no further than Curry County to see what a decimated general fund budget looks like, but they only have to peek at the police log in Josephine County to see what some residents there are doing about their depleted public safety ranks.

“I just hear they’re a mess,” said Curry County Sheriff John Bishop. “Crimes are way up, the Grants Pass Police Department is losing officers — they’re all moving away. They can’t arrest anyone and put them in jail, even though they have money to have beds (but no one to watch over inmates).”


The list goes on in Josephine County.

“And I don’t envy our county commissioners,” Bishop said. “They’re in a no-win situation.”

Public safety is the most expensive item in Curry County’s general fund pie, costing a bare-bones minimum of $1.4 million just to operate the jail. Bishop is working with a $1.1 million budget this fiscal year.

The financial situation was exacerbated when timber revenue dried up last year and voters this year rejected two property tax increases to fund public safety. County commissioners will soon have to address an empty bank account and it will likely lead to layoffs across the board.

Josephine’s woes

Josephine County officials don’t need to ask how that might work out for their neighbors to the west. They’re experiencing the repercussions of a short-funded sheriff’s office first hand.

In March 2012, Josephine County closed its major crime unit. The records division — which answers non-emergent phone calls and refers callers to the appropriate agency — followed suit in May. The civil division’s hours were cut, as were the sheriff’s patrols’.

“The Sheriff’s Office regretfully advises that, if you know you are in a potentially volatile situation  — for example, you are a protected person in a restraining order you believe the respondent may violate — you may want to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services,” Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson wrote on the sheriff’s website.

Most recently, residents have created armed patrol groups to allegedly protect citizens because sheriff deputy ranks are so thin.

Ken Selig, a long-time public safety official in Josephine County, and his friend Pete Scaglione formed the North Valley Community Watch, a 100-member, county-wide organization that hopes to protect people from crimes to which the sheriff no longer has resources to respond. 

A 12-man response team responds to the more serious calls, although their presence is meant to be more of a deterrent to crime. They carry firearms, and no one on the team has fired a shot — yet.

County Commissioner Keith Heck says the only solution is for the citizens to agree to pay more taxes to restore the sheriff’s department. In Curry County, the argument leans more to getting loggers back in the forest, after two levies failed to raise property taxes in 2013.

The situation in Josephine County has become so dire — or strange — that it’s attracted the likes of the New York Times, Fox News and other national media.

The New York Daily News even wrote an article earlier this year stating, “The first clue as to how dangerous it is to live in Oregon’s Josephine County? No one answers the phone at the sheriff’s office.”

Bishop sighs.

“This is an extremely dangerous precedent,” he said. “Everything will work fine until one of those volunteers gets hurt or hurts someone else. I don’t know what would happen; all kinds of things open up.”

Liability is the first issue.

“If you’re the person with the gun and you injure me, can I sue you? Will your insurance company protect you?” Bishop queried. “And that’s just the civil stuff.”

Trained officers often make split-second decisions — if a civilian makes the wrong one, he wonders if they would be criminally liable, as well.

Bishop has a reason Curry County doesn’t have vigilante citizen gangs wandering around.

“It’s because we’re working our butts off to keep it from happening,” he said. “But it’s a double-edged sword. You work so hard and then people don’t think they need you. If we do our job well, you should think you do not need us or are not there; we shouldn’t be thought of except when things go bad. We’re kind of like an insurance policy: You hate to pay it, but you’re damn glad you have it when you need it.”

What’s left

Therein lies the problem: Officials in both counties would like it if citizens would agree to hike their property taxes to pay for professionally trained patrols.

Here, after two failed ballot measures to do just that, county commissioners say the only solution now is to get the forests reopened to logging.

That logging paid for most of the county’s government services in decades past, and with the demise of its tax revenues last year, commissioners are scrambling to fill a $3.5 million shortfall. The paltry existing property tax garners barely enough money to fund the Sheriff’s Office, which takes the biggest chunk from that budget.

Bishop is now up to five road deputies — and another is in training — to patrol more than 1,600 square miles, including such far-flung areas as Harbor, Langlois and Agness. Response times are long, and sometimes, officers will only be dispatched if the situation means the difference between life or death.

The next several months will likely not bode well for his department, either, Bishop said. He hopes to keep at least some of the beds in the jail open — a full closure would necessitate reopening a jail that actually meets building codes — and retain his job and that of a civil deputies, as required as minimum standards by state law.

His department is already much like that of Josephine County’s, with most of all but the most serious offenders booked and released from jail and reduced road patrol hours for his overworked deputies, he said.

Bishop has no idea what the county commissioners have planned to help him do his job — short of funding his operation from the road fund.

“This is a very difficult situation,” he said. “I’ve got 40 employees; where do I cut? I can’t cut patrol; if I cut that, money goes back to the road fun. The marine’s paid by the state, same with community corrections. Emergency services, half is paid by the state, and it’s mandated. Dispatch are all cross-trained to work in the jail, so I can’t cut there. That leaves two divisions to cut: jail and dispatch. If I do lose dispatch, then we have to hire four more to have them in command and control. And we still have to book and release. Which to you cut, and of the ones you do cut, what do you really save?

“This is like the $1 million Ferrari that  just doesn’t have an engine. At what point does that become useless?”

The end of the road is likely June 30.

In the meantime, he’s gone through a dozen employees and told the rest to be sure to leave their options open.

He doesn’t have high hopes for a “summit” meeting planned in late January to discuss long-term solutions.

“If you think a magic bullet is going to come from this, you’re wrong,” Bishop said. “They (other county leaders) are already calling us asking us what to do.

“Government was created for public safety,” he added. “When you start taking down the foundation of what government is for, you’re messing with a Pandora’s box that shouldn’t be messed with. Law and order is the foundation from which we live a civilized life. Otherwise, it’s like wolves that get to prey on the sheep. And we’re just starting to see the beginning of it.”