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Island County deputies push for more help

The budget process for the Island County commissioners began this week, but one group of employees has already made a bold move in an attempt to influence the process.

The Island County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild ran a full-page advertisement in the Whidbey News-Times last month arguing that the department was in desperate need of more deputies. It contained a lot of eye-opening information, like the fact that the office would need to hire 32 more deputies just to meet the state average of deputies per citizens.

“Please contact your County Commissioners and ask them to properly fund and properly staff your Sheriff’s Office,” the ad asks.

While a guild spokesman said the ad was not timed to have an effect on the elections, the question of funding law enforcement is an important issue that may help voters choose between the candidates.

Among the four candidates, only Angie Homola seems convinced that the need for deputies is both real and urgent, especially after meeting with Sheriff Mark Brown and Undersheriff Kelly Mauck. She’s a Democratic candidate challenging Republican Mac McDowell in District 2, which covers much of North Whidbey.

“There should never be a time when a deputy is left alone in the field,” she said, “and there should never be a time when there are no deputies in the field who can respond in a reasonable time ... But that’s happening now.”

As a commissioner, Homola said she would be willing to take a hard look at the budget and adjust it “to achieve the protection we need.” Also, she said the county’s poorly-planned growth increases population and crime.

“We must stop growing

beyond our means,” she said.

In addition, Homola said she would likely support a proposal, if it came forward, to place a retail sales and use tax on the ballot to fund law enforcement. Under a state law, the voters may approve a sales tax of 0.1 percent for criminal justice programs, but the commissioner would have to authorize its placement on the ballot. Currently, 32 of Washington’s 39 counties have such a tax.

McDowell is more defensive about the commissioners’ past support of law enforcement. He said this isn’t the first time that the Deputy Sheriff’s Guild has tried to influence the budget process.

“One year the deputies boycotted writing tickets, but they forgot to tell us,” he said.

He’s been a commissioner for 16 years and claims that there’s been a 40 percent increase in the number of deputies since he took office — even with the large loss of revenue from voter initiatives.

McDowell explained that the county receives a limited increase in revenue each year, about enough to fund two or three new positions in the entire county.

“Everyone has more work, not just the sheriff,” he said. Even so, he said the sheriff’s office has received “the lion’s share of increases.”

McDowell is known for being fiscally frugal and opposing tax increases. By holding the line on spending, McDowell helped keep the county’s property taxes low. The county assessor’s office reports that Island County’s total levy rate is the second lowest in the state, with only San Juan County being lower.

McDowell said he doesn’t feel that the public sees a vital need for more deputies.

“If you ask the average person, ‘Do you feel unsafe in Island County?’ the answer is no,” he said. “I’ve never heard an overriding cry from the public in general that there’s so much crime that they need more deputies.”

McDowell isn’t enthusiastic about the idea of raising a sales tax to fund more deputies.

“To support it, I would have to see a broad support like there was for the mental health initiative (sales tax),” he said.

In the race for District 1 commissioner, Republican Phil Bakke and Democrat Helen Price Johnson have more similar views about the issue of funding more deputies. The district covers South and Central Whidbey.

Both Bakke and Price Johnson said they were not persuaded by the guild’s ad, but they want to study the issue more completely and they both look forward to the sheriff’s budget presentation.

“It’s a more complex question than the information included in one display ad,” Price Johnson said.

Price Johnson agreed that public safety is the county’s top priority and that the deputies do “a stellar job” with the resources they have.

“But there are other needs across the county that are dire,” she pointed out.

Price Johnson hopes to identify other efficiencies that can be adopted in order to help the Sheriff’s Office. She’s not sure about placing a sales tax increase on the ballot.

“Before I would ever consider that, I would have to look closely at the need,” she said.

Bakke also said he has a lot of questions about the Sheriff’s Office, like whether it’s top-heavy with management and how many and what types of calls they respond to. He pointed out that the department has a record high 43 commissioned officers.

“It’s a tough environment to be looking for more money,” he said. “It’s tough. Taxes are down.”

Bakke emphasized that crime rates are low in the county, which he credits largely to county programs aimed at preventing and reducing crime. The commissioners supported drug courts, mental health programs, a program for new mothers, as well as other programs.

“All these things create this incredible web of services,” he said.

While he said he will continue to support law enforcement, these other types of programs also need funding. After all, he said it’s better for the community and more cost effective to prevent crime in the first place.

“If you can keep them out of jail, those programs are a bargain,” he said.

In response to the notion of a sales tax to support law enforcement, Bakke was clearly not in favor.

“I’m not a big fan of creating new taxes when people are trying to pay for propane to heat their homes,” he said.

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