Clark County commissioners discuss hiring eight deputies

Stuart wants details on how such a move would affect entire justice system

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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RIDGEFIELD — Clark County should carefully look at how it pays for public safety, and do so in a way that takes into consideration costs to the entire justice system, Commissioner Steve Stuart said Thursday.

At the commissioners' annual retreat at Tri-Mountain Golf Course in Ridgefield, Stuart questioned whether it was prudent for the county to assume it could set aside money to recruit, train and hire new deputies without that affecting the criminal justice system. The comments came in response to a presentation by Bob Stevens, county budget director. On the direction of the sheriff's office, Stevens suggested adding eight deputies to bolster an office that's seen its numbers decline in recent years.

The sheriff's office is allowed to hire up to eight deputies in a year, based on the number of available graduation dates allocated by the state's police academy, Stevens said.

But Stuart said he wanted more information about the long-term budgetary effects of hiring more deputies. In addition, he said he wanted to know where the money would come from. Adding eight deputies would cost the county roughly $1 million a year.

"It's more complicated than just getting eight deputies," Stuart said, adding he supported hiring more deputies as long as certain trade-offs were addressed.

At issue are fee waivers on new business development and parking at county parks. Commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore supported the waivers, approved in 2013, saying they'd open the floodgates to jobs. Stuart, meanwhile, was the voice of dissent.

The waivers have placed an added burden on the county's general fund, but it's not as significant as anticipated, Stevens said. Still, the county's budget director said his office won't assume the waivers will remain in place for the next biennium budget. Ultimately, that decision will be left to the commissioners.

Thursday's discussion was only part of what has been, and continues to be, a long process.

In November, Sheriff Garry Lucas entreated the commissioners to live up to past promises and pony up more money, saying he was "tired of being put off." Funding woes have plagued the office in recent years. Since 2008, the sheriff's office has lost 24 deputy positions.

Part of the problem has been a law and justice sales tax that has never been able to generate the type of revenue forecast when it was approved in 2006. When the Great Recession hit, tax revenue took a dive.

Moving forward, Stevens said he would talk to the rest of the county's criminal justice community to obtain feedback about what might happen if the county hired more deputies.

That will ensure there are no unintended costs, Stuart said.

"It's like if you put your thumb in this part of the dike," he said, "it will come squirting out someplace else."