Staffing woes within the Island County Sheriff’s Office and subsequent fears of losing 24-hour coverage on Camano and Whidbey islands have helped breathe new life into a proposal for a law-and-justice tax.
Sheriff Mark Brown has been scratching his head over the past month wondering how to deal with a string of existing or pending officer vacancies; two have already left, two others are looking at new jobs elsewhere and up to three more are on the verge of retirement.
Because it takes nearly seven months for new recruits to hit the road in a squad car from their date of hire, he will likely have to fill the gap with overtime and, possibly, the unpopular prospect of canceling vacation time.
Not only does that leave him with the headache of trying to scratch up funding for the extra overtime, but he’s still left with the day-to-day realities of sick staff or other unexpected staffing problems, such as medical leave due to injuries.
The department has already implemented new policies to manage the problem. On Jan. 16, a memo went out to all commissioned deputies alerting them that they were no longer to respond to residential burglary alarms or wireless 911 area checks.
But Brown and department officials fear this is just the beginning, that eventually the end result will be the loss of 24-hour coverage in Island County, first on Camano and then on Whidbey.
“I’m certainly going to fight to keep that from happening but I can’t guarantee it,” Brown said.
“But to sit around and wait until that happens…” he added.
Although the county’s top cop has been briefing the commissioners on the situation over the past month, sitting around is something he says he simply can’t afford to do.
This month, he rekindled discussions at the Law and Justice Council about the prospects of putting before voters a new tax that would drum up additional funding for criminal justice needs.
The council last year passed a resolution that recommended the commissioners move ahead with a 0.3 percent of sales tax — about 3 cents to a $10 purchase — but the board declined to do so for a variety of reasons.
There was talk about transferring some of the law-and-justice tax dollars to other county functions, a plan Brown was adamantly against, and there was also concern that the county wasn’t prepared to successfully sell such a measure to the public.
At the Law and Justice Council, Brown’s request to pick up the torch again in the near future met with resistance.
“I’m not in favor of forwarding anything to the commissioners at this moment,” said council member Bob Clay, who is also a Coupeville town councilman. “I think there are more questions that need to be answered.”
Specifically, the Island County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild have been working without a contract for years and it’s currently in a state of arbitration. Until that’s resolved, and it’s clear what money is going where, Clay said he just isn’t comfortable asking voters to approve anything.
Brown argues that as an elected official, guild contracts are entirely out of his control and that it’s unfair for his budget to be “held hostage” by negotiations that he doesn’t even participate in.
But there is also argument about whether any new tax should be a sales or property tax. A sales tax is more limited because only so much money can be raised due to a state cap. Also, what money is generated will have to be split between the county and Whidbey’s three municipalities.
A property tax is much more versatile by comparison because there is no ceiling on how much can be requested and the funds received can be spent only on Island County law-and-justice needs.
Clay said he is leaning toward a sales tax, if anything, because he believes it would tax everyone and not just property owners. Particularly, tourists would also have to contribute. Tourism is one of the county’s primary economic drivers and visitors also benefit from law enforcement, he said.
Others, such as Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley, are adamantly against another sales tax. They maintain that as the urban center and sales backbone of the county, Oak Harbor would carry much of the burden for county-wide services.
“It’s extremely unfair,” Dudley said.
He also worries that it will drive many to travel off island to do their shopping, a trend that would be detrimental to city businesses. Dudley said he voiced the same concerns in 2012.
“I made it known last year and I will be vocal again,” Dudley said.
Similarly, Commissioner Jill Johnson, who also serves on the council, is against a sales tax. But, like Clay, she has concerns about whether this is the right time to move forward with any tax.
She said she believes there is a legitimate need, but that Brown is the force behind the effort and she has yet to be convinced that his staffing problems can’t be solved another way.
“He needs it, but I don’t know if this tax is the way to solve the problem,” Johnson said.
But it’s not just Brown who is looking for relief. Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks has also been at the forefront of the issue. While he did receive some relief with temporary staff last year, Banks’ department remains short staffed despite having to juggle three separate murder cases over the past six months.
He also is hoping for action as soon as possible as it will take some time for the measure to be placed on a ballot and even longer before money is allocated to various departments.
“It’s a journey,” Banks said. “We need to start now.”
Brown did acknowledge, however, that his need is so great that he is near desperation. In fact, while the council has agreed to discuss the matter again at its February meeting, Brown said that’s as long as he will wait before going to the commissioners directly.
“I’m at critical staffing levels and I need to move forward now,” Brown said.