In Our View: Sheriff’s Office Shuffle

Providing money to add officers good, but lack of stable funding a problem

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The Clark County Board of Commissioners last week managed to address the problem of understaffing in the Clark County Sheriff’s Office without managing to solve anything. Consider it the art of the half-hearted deal.

Commissioners approved a supplemental budget that provides money to hire eight sworn-officer positions — seven deputies and one sergeant. The move triggers an 18-month hiring process in which candidates will be vetted and trained, and it answers concerns voiced last fall by Sheriff Garry Lucas. “I’m tired of being placated,” Lucas told commissioners in November. “I’m getting tired of being put off. … I’m here to tell you that I’m not going away. I’m here to tell you these are real pressing needs.”

Numbers supported Lucas’ exhortations. According to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, Clark County in 2012 had the second-lowest per-capita number of officers among all the sheriff’s offices in the state. The county employed 0.63 sworn officers per 1,000 in population, while only the 0.61 rate in Island County was smaller. By comparison, the Vancouver Police Department had 1.09 commissioned officers per 1,000 residents. The sheriff’s office last added deputies in 2007, and a reduction in the tax base during the Great Recession resulted in the layoff of 22 officers in 2009.

To their credit, commissioners have taken steps to reverse that trend. Yet in so doing, they have addressed the symptoms but not the underlying cause. The germ of the disease is a lack of revenue, and commissioners have approved funding the eight new positions by shifting $1.1 million from savings on the county’s health plan, but not by implementing a more stable funding source. “We are going to have to make adjustments to make law-and-justice (funding) sustainable,” Bob Stevens, the county’s budget director, told commissioners. Steve Stuart told his fellow commissioners, “We can’t keep spending money and expect (the budget director) to find a new pot of money that will save us.”

Such is the dilemma facing all governmental agencies. As The Columbian has written editorially about the need to increase staffing for the sheriff’s office: “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?’ ” The answers never are easy, but it should be clear that doing the right thing for residents of the county would include a stable funding source for additional law enforcement. Under the current plan, it is possible that newly approved positions could be eliminated before they are officially filled.

Commissioners last year eliminated parking fees at county parks, removing about $325,000 annually from the general fund — money that could go to the sheriff’s office. Commissioners also have provided fee waivers for developers — a move that might or might not result in enough additional tax revenue to offset the loss of the fees. Stevens urged commissioners to end the fee holiday following this year, saying that shuttling money between accounts is not a sustainable practice, but Commissioner David Madore has strongly supported the waivers as a method for boosting economic growth in the county.

So, for now, county commissioners have kind of, sort of, somewhat addressed the problem of understaffing for the sheriff’s office. Next, they must find a method to ensure that their solution is a lasting one.