The cry of "we need more money" is a favorite mantra of public officials, yet it is one often easily dismissed with a retort of "where should the money come from?" Governmental budgets require a never-ending balancing act among an ever-growing list of projects that could be construed as beneficial to the public.
But in the wake of Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas' appearance before the county's board of commissioners, three truisms come to the fore: 1) Most people would agree that public safety should be a top priority for government; 2) Clark County's level of staffing for its sheriff's office is unacceptable; and 3) Lucas raises strong points about the direction the county has moved in regards to public safety.
"I'm getting tired of being placated," Lucas told county commissioners, as reported by The Columbian's Erik Hidle. "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."
According to data compiled by the Washington Association of Sheriff's and Police Chiefs, the Clark County Sheriff's Office has the second-lowest number of officers per capita among any county in the state. In 2012, the agency had 0.63 commissioned officers per 1,000 in population throughout its coverage area. Only Island County (primarily Whidbey Island and Camano Island) had a lower rate, with 0.61 commissioned officers per 1,000 residents. According to the WASPC numbers, the Clark County Sheriff's Office serves about 207,000 residents in unincorporated portions of the county. The Vancouver Police Department, which covers a population of about 163,000, has 1.09 commissioned officers per 1,000 residents.
Those numbers have a very real impact. The Clark County Sheriff's Office has reduced its gang task force to one officer, and no officers are currently assigned to its auto theft task force.
Undoubtedly, every head of a government agency can make a case for more funding, particularly in these relatively austere times. As noted above, the question then becomes, "Where should the money come from?" Clark County commissioners have worked to reduce county budgets, which is a laudable endeavor, but Lucas pointed out two such instances in which the public could be better served by an increased emphasis on public safety.
One was a decision to eliminate parking fees at county parks. That removes about $325,000 annually from the county's general fund, which could go to the sheriff's office, and Chief Mike Evans has told The Columbian in the past that the money could pay for about 2.5 fully funded deputies, including cars. In another decision, county commissioners opted to waive development fees for new businesses. It's too early to say how that will impact county coffers, with the hope being that new businesses will increase the county's tax base.
In the end, it becomes a matter of priorities. The numbers demonstrate that the Clark County Sheriff's Office is understaffed, and that fact is not satisfactory for a county that wishes to provide the highest level of service for its constituents; public safety always should be near the top of the list. While we can't support a tax hike — an idea that would be an impossible sell to a populace still struggling to extricate itself from The Great Recession — we can urge more judicious use of the county's general budget. Sometimes, the wise use of money on hand would serve the public better than budget reductions.