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Sheriff seeks separate funding

Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley is trying to do some cost cutting this year in anticipation of an 11 percent across-the-board budget cut in county departments next year.

He has quickly found that it’s impossible to chop that much from his budget while maintaining either around-the-clock coverage with deputies or a safe environment for his people to work in.

As a result, Hawley has joined with other sheriffs from around the state to find a more stable method of funding law and justice.

The idea is that public safety and justice shouldn’t have to suffer when the economy or interest rates sag. Hawley points out that some departments, like roads or independent fire districts, already have a separate and more dependable “stream of funding.”

The situation in Island County and many other counties, Hawley said, is a simply an emergency.

“We’re caught in this vortex that has to be solved,” he said. “It’s unconscionable to have to send men and women out there into a situation that is not safe. ... it’s unsafe for the deputies and unsafe for the public.”

Currently, the Sheriff’s Office has five unfilled deputy positions. Hawley said it makes no sense to fill the positions since it takes a year to train a new deputy. By the time they’re ready, he would have to lay them off.

An 11 percent cut in the sheriff’s budget, Hawley said, would amount to eight positions he’ll have to get rid of next January.

With the current staffing of 35 deputies — including the sheriff himself — Hawley said he’s just barely able to maintain 24-hour coverage on Whidbey Island. The deputies are divided amoung three precincts — North Whidbey, South Whidbey and Camano Island.

If the department loses another deputy, there simply won’t be 24-hour policing in the county.

With fewer deputies on the road, Hawley said the response time to 911 calls has lengthened. And deputies have to respond to potentially dangerous situations without backup.

In anticipation of the budget cuts, he recently “downgraded” a lieutenant’s position, which is more of a supervisory position, to a sergeant’s position in order to save $4,000 a year.

“Right now we need more people on the roads,” Hawley said.

He also eliminated the chief criminal deputy position. Two detectives recently retired and their positions are “sitting there open,” Hawley said.

In addition, Hawley has done away with several department programs, such as the SWAT team. The department has only five clerical staff members, which is half of the Oak Harbor Police Department’s clerical staffing. “We handle 10 times the paperwork they do,” he said.

The budget crisis comes from a number of causes, he said, including the tax-cutting initiatives, the recession, lowering of interest rates, and a drop in sales tax collections.

Hawley said the budget problems can’t be solved on a local level, but must be remedied in Olympia. That’s why he’s joined with the other sheriffs, some of whom are facing county bankruptcy, to lobby Olympia.

They haven’t decided on their solution yet, Hawley said, but the sheriffs hope to have their plan together by Oct. 1.

The sheriff’s budget hearing with the county commissioners is set for May 7.

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