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Sheriff gets funds for eight positions

By Tyler Graf, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

March 26--In a nod toward restoring staffing levels at the Clark County Sheriff's Office, commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved a supplemental budget that provides money to hire new sworn-officer positions for the first time since 2007.

The move will shift roughly $1.1 million, culled from savings taken from the county's health insurance plan, to pay for seven deputies and one sergeant. The move comes about four months after Sheriff Garry Lucas blasted commissioners for making him wait years before addressing the possibility of making new hires at his understaffed office.

The approval gets the ball moving on an 18-month hiring process, in which the candidates will be vetted and trained. But there are concerns that making the hires, without identifying new sources of long-term revenue, could mean the positions will disappear in the future.

Bob Stevens, Clark County's budget director, said the county remains in a structural deficit. Even as revenue increases, so do expenditures. There are also concerns that fee waivers on nonresidential development, if extended through the next budget biennium, could cut into the county's bottom line.

Shifting money from different accounts is not a sustainable practice, he said.

"We are going to have to make adjustments to make law-and-justice (funding) sustainable," he said.

The county should be able to continue paying for the new deputies in the future, Stevens said. But he questioned whether that could be done if the Clark County Board of Commissioners decided to extend the fee waiver program beyond this year. He said it was critical to budget for the new hires now, so they become part of the next biennial budget's baseline.

He said he wouldn't recommend renewing the fee holiday for the upcoming biennial budget because he considered it a one-year program. Ultimately, that decision will be left up to commissioners. Two of the three, Republicans Tom Mielke and David Madore, have rallied behind it.

Commissioner Steve Stuart, a Democrat, opposed fee waivers when they were enacted in June. Tuesday, he said he was concerned about not having sustainable revenue streams in place and instead relying on moving money around to backfill budgets.

"We can't keep spending money and expect (the budget director) to find a new pot of money that will save us," Stuart said.

Still, the additional deputies will fill a long-standing need, Lucas said, because the sheriff's office is 24 positions shy of being fully staffed. The sworn-deputy-to-citizen ratio is among the lowest in the state, he said, meaning response times have taken a hit and there have been deficiencies in investigative units.

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In November, Lucas voiced frustration to commissioners, saying he was "tired of being placated" when it came to talk of hiring more deputies. Lucas, a Republican and the longest-serving elected official in the county, said he'd been stewing about the issue for a year.

But for years before that, the county said it couldn't afford more sworn officers.

The sheriff's office last added deputies in 2007, following the implementation of a sales tax increase that went to law enforcement and justice programs. That plan fell apart shortly after it was instituted. When the recession hit in 2008, tax revenue plummeted far below projections. The sheriff's office ended up laying off 22 sworn officers in 2009. Another position was stripped away in 2012. Currently, the sheriff's office employs 144 sworn officers, Lucas said.

Increasing the number of sworn deputies still won't address deficiencies in the investigative units -- such as those for major crimes, gang enforcement and elder abuse -- which will remain staffed below what the sheriff's office would like. What it's expected to do is improve response times to emergency calls, Lucas said, which is the sheriff's office core mission.

"When someone calls 911, you have to protect your core mission," Lucas said. "But we're doing that at the expense of every specialized position we have."

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(c)2014 The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)

Visit The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.) at www.columbian.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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