Island County Sheriff loses another job in latest budget cuts
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
December 2, 2009 · Updated 8:45 AM
Island County commissioners further reduced the budgets of several departments, including the sheriff’s office, during a sometimes-contentious hearing Monday morning with elected officials.
In the preliminary budget, it appears that about seven full-time and part-time employees will be laid off in this, the third round of budget trimming over the last year. Four of those will come from law-and-justice departments. They include the director of emergency management, a records clerk in the sheriff’s office, a deputy prosecutor and a court commissioner.
The total shortfall in the 2010 budget was $1.2 million, but commissioners will cut it in half by modestly increasing property taxes, dipping into reserve funds and changing health insurance for non-union employees.
Late on Monday, the commissioners answered questions, squashed rumors and listened to concerns about budget cuts in a packed meeting with county employees. A few employees expressed frustration, but the tone of the meeting remained mostly cordial as commissioners and the budget director explained their decisions.
“The commissioners have dealt with the hardest thing this county has even dealt with,” former WSU Extension Director Don Meehan said at the end of the meeting, suggesting that the commissioners deserved a pay increase.
Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said she hopes to convene a committee of community members to look at options for increasing county revenues, which could include a property tax levy lift.
Monday morning, the commissioners made changes in cuts to departments after listening to concerns from elected officials. They originally assigned 4.5 percent cuts to law-and-justice departments and 4 percent cuts to most other departments.
The officials also discussed proposals to limit the hours that most county offices are open to the public, possibly closing doors to the public on Fridays.
Island County Assessor Dave Mattens explained that a 4 percent cut would mean losing the employee who does segregations — changes in tax parcel configuration — which would ultimately translate to less property tax revenues for the county.
In response, the commissioners elected to lower his cut to 1.5 percent, which together with a new grant, will mean no layoffs in his department.
The commissioners also increased the cuts to WSU Extension to 5 percent, public defense to 4.5 and senior services to 12.5 percent.
The loudest arguments came from law-and-justice officials, but they didn’t succeed in persuading the commissioners. The cut to the sheriff’s office was increased to 5 percent. That will likely mean that the director of the emergency management department and a records clerk will be laid off.
At the start of the lively debate, Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks accused the commissioners of “dismantling the law and justice system.”
“It’s going to have a significant effect on public safety,” he said.
Banks said he will end up losing a deputy prosecutor who handles felony crimes. He said his office will have fewer deputy prosecutors handling criminal cases than there were in 1998, though they deal with 65 percent more “dangerous felonies” and 33 percent more misdemeanors.
Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said he will do everything in his power to avoid laying off deputies in order to protect them and the public.
“I never have, nor will I ever, forget what it means to be a risk taker,” he said.
Undersheriff Kelly Mauck interjected that the sheriff’s office has historically been underfunded, so that any cutting will have a devastating impact.
But the commissioners didn’t back down.
Price Johnson pointed out that all departments have had large, unsustainable cuts, but that law-and-justice departments have suffered the least.
“We took very, very minimal cuts to the sheriff’s budget,” she said, emphasizing that the department has the largest share of the current expense fund.
Price Johnson also asserted that Banks’ comments about “dismantling” the law-and-justice system were unfair and cautioned him to be careful about the words he uses.
But both Banks and Brown said they aren’t trying to use scare tactics, but to communicate the reality of the situation.
“It’s a recipe for disaster and I’m really concerned...” Banks said. “I’m sorry if you don’t like my choice of words, but that’s the way I see it.”
“That’s why the cuts to your departments have been significantly less than the piece of the pie that you possess,” Price Johnson countered.
Price Johnson and Brown also sparred about whether the county has a low crime rate. For the record, the crime rate in unincorporated Island County in 2008 was 22 crimes committed per 1,000 people, according to the Uniform Crime Reports published by the FBI. The index focuses solely on major crimes, including murder, robbery, rape, felony assault, car theft and arson.
According to the statistics, 21 of the state’s 39 counties have a lower crime rate than the unincorporated parts of Island County. King County, for example, has a crime rate of 22.5 per 1,000 population.Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.