Deputies eyed in budget cuts
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
March 26, 2009 · Updated 9:44 AM
A $2 million hole in Island County’s budget will likely mean fewer deputies to respond to 911 calls, which would translate to longer response times and deputies dealing with dangerous calls alone.
Prosecutors may stop prosecuting traffic infractions, marijuana possession cases of under 40 grams and off-leash dog violations, as well as terminating involvement in juvenile drug court and truancy proceedings.
Leaders of the county’s law and justice system are coming to grips with the dire budget projection. Compared to other county offices, the law and justice departments were largely sheltered from the $2 million in budget cuts last December, though they account for 55 percent of the general fund budget.
But in the latest budget cuts, they realize they won’t be so lucky.
“I’ve got to be a realist. I don’t see us coming out of this without losing people,” Sheriff Mark Brown said.
Brown has been particularly outspoken in his fight to retain all his deputies. He’s held public meetings to argue his case, explaining that his staffing level is one of the lowest in the state and he’s worried about the safety of his deputies if they have to respond to incidents like domestic disputes by themselves.
Brown has argued that non-mandated services, such as parks and WSU Extension, should be cut first.
“Public safety and health are the tip of the spear and we should start looking at what needs to be cut below us,” he said.
The Island County commissioners are in the process of figuring out how to slash the budget. They asked all elected officials and department heads to submit proposals showing how they would cut 5, 10, 15 and 20 percent from their budgets.
For the sheriff’s office, Brown estimated that would mean cutting from five to 21 positions from the jail and criminal law enforcement division.
Undersheriff Kelly Mauck said he and Brown are guessing that they will end up losing four positions: two deputies, a corrections deputy, and the next deputy to leave or retire won’t be replaced. But Mauck said they are submitting grant applications to bring back three positions through the federal COPS Hiring Recovery Program, which is funded through the economic stimulus program.
Mauck said the sheriff is hoping to get answers from the commissioners soon and make the necessary cuts. But it looks like the commissioners won’t make final budget decisions until May.
“The longer it goes, the worse it will be for us,” Mauck said.
Prosecutor Greg Banks has also expressed concern about how long the budget-cutting process is taking. Likewise, he agrees with Brown’s arguments about funding priorities.
“We are trying to make the case that public safety really needs to be the priority of government,” he said.
Banks outlined drastic changes to his department in his response to the board of commissioners. A 5 percent reduction would mean losing a misdemeanor deputy prosecutor, while a 20 percent cut would force him to layoff a senior deputy prosecutor, a misdemeanor deputy prosecutor, a civil deputy prosecutor and a part-time support staff person.
To deal with staffing cuts, prosecutors would have to stop prosecuting certain types of crimes and end their involvement in other areas.
The office recently lost an attorney when Deputy Prosecutor Patrick McKenna, a felony prosecutor, decided to take a job in Seattle. Banks hasn’t moved forward with replacing him in case the vacant position is made permanent. If so, Banks said he plans to eliminate a misdemeanor deputy prosecutor position and restore the felony unit to full strength. To reduce the misdemeanor caseload, he plans to stop prosecuting marijuana possession, traffic infractions, off-leash dog violations and suspended licenses cases based on unpaid fines.
Banks notes that the court can conduct hearings for civil traffic infractions without a prosecutor.
In addition, the prosecutor said his office would likely stop taking part in truancy proceedings and the juvenile drug court.
“There’s no escaping the fact that the drug court services just a few juveniles and we devote a lot of resources to it,” he said.
Additional cuts in his staff, Banks wrote, would force prosecutors to charge felony drug possession and property crimes of less than $1,000 as misdemeanors, limit legal help for land-use issues, eliminate contract review and halt voter fraud investigations. In the worst case scenario, Banks wrote that he would have to push even more felony cases into misdemeanor court, including property crimes of less than $5,000 and commercial burglaries.
“This is our best assessment,” Banks said. “We won’t know for sure what will work until we do it.”
In other law-and-justice departments, District Court Judge Peter Strow suggested leaving two unfilled positions, a head probation officer and a receptionist, vacant. That would save nearly 11 percent of the court’s budget, but it would mean a loss of $32,000 in revenues from probation.
Clerk Sharon Franzen wrote that she feels the only workable option to save money is to increase unpaid lunch breaks by half an hour, which would save $21,000 a year.Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.