During a Thursday night public forum on how the proposed county budget would affect the sheriff’s office, a man in attendance asked Sheriff Chuck Atkins if he would ever have enough money after years of cuts.
“I don’t think in my lifetime I’m going to say, ‘Hey, don’t give us any more,’ ” Atkins told the roughly 30 people gathered at Three Creeks Community Library to hear about the budget. “Because the population keeps growing and the calls for service that you expect law enforcement to deal with keep growing.”
Clark County council is currently considering a $321 million budget for the 2017-18 biennium proposed by County Manager Mark McCauley.
One portion of the budget that’s attracted particular attention from the public and officials are proposed cuts to the sheriff’s office. The budget initially anticipated a $1.7 million cut that has risen to $2.7 million.
But one fact that’s received less attention is that the new budget will increase the overall amount of money for the sheriff’s office. According to the most recent set of numbers from the Clark County Auditor’s Office, the budget for the sheriff’s office would increase from its current $102 million to $112.5 million for the 2017-18 biennium.
Atkins told The Columbian that the new money is already spoken for, meaning his office will still be forced to consider cuts. During the meeting, he noted that there’s one part of his office he won’t cut.
“Our most valuable resource is our deputies, our corrections officers and their support branch staff that we have trained and are working hard for you right now,” Atkins said. “We can’t lose any more of them.”
Labor costs rising
Atkins told The Columbian that the budget increases will go to rising labor costs, an issue that has plagued the county’s finances. There are four bargaining units that represent sheriff’s office employees including commanders, deputies, support staff and corrections officers. Three out of four of the units are in some phase of labor negotiations, which are expected to increase wages and benefits.
Undersheriff Mike Cooke pointed out that county Human Resources negotiates the contracts, not the sheriff’s office. But they can be costly. The most recently approved agreement with the deputy sheriffs guild in 2015, which included retroactive raises, added $3.4 million in the current budget biennium and about $2.9 to the next.
Atkins said that the work of law enforcement officers has become more complicated over the years and requires individuals with a wider range of skills ranging from computers to dealing with people grappling with mental health issues.
“It’s a competitive market,” he said. “It’s not just get in a car and run around.”
Darin Rouhier, finance manager for the sheriff’s office, said that the peak number of sworn employees for the agency was 157 in 2008. He said that after the recession, the sheriff’s office cut a total of 24 positions, only eight of which were added back in 2014.
Cuts are coming
At the forum, Atkins said he hadn’t finalized where the $2.7 million in spending reductions would come from, but he had a few ideas.
Atkins said he anticipates the office to take a $820,000 hit to its vehicle fleet. He also said he’s considering ending a reentry program that helps inmates get their driver’s license, find work, make it to medical appointments and plan their lives after being released. Although he described the program as “highly effective” and his office sought to expand it, he said it’s now on the chopping block.
The sheriff’s office will also likely have to shutter its Central Precinct, saving money on electricity, water and other overhead. He said his office will move its operations to West Precinct and will look into renting a building until a permanent location can be found.
Atkins said that although it “pained him,” his office is considering closing its reserve deputy program, where volunteers undergo training and perform limited duties of deputies.
“When the cuts are as big as they’re proposed to be, it’s people or stuff,” added Cooke.
Despite reductions, the sheriff’s office is still getting one-time spending bumps.
“Big kudos to the budget office for proposing that forward, and we appreciate that,” said Atkins.
Under the proposed budget, he said that the sheriff’s office would receive $833,000 from the county’s real estate excise tax funds for suicide prevention measures in county jail. The sheriff’s office will get another $535,000 from the same fund to replace the sheriff’s boathouse and $200,000 to buy bullet-resistant glass in the sheriff’s lobby as well as other safety measures.
The sheriff’s office will also get $166,000 from the county General Fund to cover deputies’ overtime costs.
Up to the council
The county council has the option of making revisions to the budget before finalizing it in December. Atkins noted that he had invited the council to the meeting, with Council Chair Marc Boldt and Councilor David Madore making an appearance.
Boldt didn’t speak, but Madore told the crowd that this was the first budget written by the county manager under the new home rule charter.
“What we’re really seeing here is a shift in priorities,” Madore said. “Lower priorities for the sheriff’s department, higher priorities for the general administration.”
“We have plenty of money coming into the county; the problem is prioritization,” he added.