Clark County sheriff tired of waiting for more funding

Lucas says additional money needed to address safety for public, officers

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas says he's withheld requests for additional budget expenditures for his department for the past six years as the county dealt with austere budget times. The expectation, he says, is that commissioners would pony up for public safety once money became available.

Now he says he's done waiting.

"With 46 years on the job, I'm getting tired of it," Lucas said to commissioners at a work session on budget matters last week. "I'm getting tired of being placated. I'm getting tired of being put off. I'm tired of being told to be a good little boy (and) that Santa will be home next year. I'm here to tell you that I'm not going away. I'm here to tell you these are real pressing needs. They are public safety issues. They are officer safety issues.

"On my watch, I have buried two deputies, and I do not wish to do it again. So I'm not going away. I will be in front of you. I will be nagging you as long as I'm around."

Lucas, a Republican and the longest-serving elected official in the county, has been simmering on the subject over the past year. In that time, he has voiced his displeasure over the county's new policies to waive parking fees at county parks and to waive development fees for new business development.

Both policies required the county's general fund take on an additional burden.

Both plans were introduced by Republican Commissioner David Madore, and were promised in his campaign for the job. The policies were both approved with the support of fellow Republican Commissioner Tom Mielke, while Democratic Commissioner Steve Stuart stood in dissent.

"They have taken other actions that have drained income from the county general fund, which directly could have funded law enforcement," Lucas said after addressing commissioners.

Sheriff's needs

Clark County commissioners are considering additions to staff at the jail and to civil staff, as well as a $1.5 million investment in a new computer system for the department, in the budget readoption process scheduled to begin on Dec. 3.

But even if those needs are placated, the Sheriff's Office still appears to be facing a serious shortfall of sworn officers.

"Currently, we have stripped our specialized assignments … down to a point where we can not reduce them any further," Chief Criminal Deputy Mike Evans said to commissioners, "that if we reduce them any further, we will be forced to eliminate that service, because we are at that critical level."

Evans said examples of that situation include the gang task force, which is down to one officer, and the auto theft task force, to which no one is currently assigned.

"We currently beg, borrow and steal officers from different assignments to meet staffing minimums on patrol," Evans said.

Further, the Sheriff's Office ranks second-worst in the state for officer coverage per 1,000 residents within coverage area.

To fill gaps in patrols earlier this year, the office rotated officers into temporary evening shifts.

Among those affected by the temporary moves was Sgt. Shane Gardner, who serves primarily as a community outreach liaison. Evans said the community response to that move was poor.

Lucas said the reality is that "if you call 911 right now, you have a 47 percent chance of having a deputy available to respond to your call."

To get that number up to 68 percent, Evans said, the department would need to add 24 deputies.

"To proactively deal with police work, and to have deputies available 68 percent of the time, we would need to add 66 deputies to patrol," Evans said.

County response

The county commissioners asked their finance and budget staff to work with the sheriff's office to determine both short-term and long-term needs for the office.

On Friday, board chair Stuart said he expects to hear the response from staff at an upcoming board time meeting.

"Right now, I think we all agree that public safety is job one," Stuart said. "The budget team, and the finance team and the sheriff's team will work at it to find what is the actual need both short term and long term."