As a general rule, budget hearings for government agencies do not make for scintillating news. But this year, the Spokane county commissioners are bringing a little drama to the process.
Last month, Commissioner Al French held a press conference at which he announced the county would not ask taxpayers for extra property tax money next year to balance the budget. There are several reasons. One is that the state is going to impose a property tax increase of its own to pay for public schools. The commissioners say asking voters at the polls for more county property tax money would be piling on. The bottom line is next year’s budget is going to be pretty lean. French says the county will have to cut about $9.5 million to balance it.
“We’re not at a crisis state, but we’re clearly in a tight spot," French said.
A big chunk of that budget is for law enforcement and the sheriff’s department has been asked to prepare for cuts. Still fresh in the mind of Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich are budget reductions several years ago that required him to lay off more than 30 deputies, positions he says he has never gotten back.
“With the one-point-three million dollar cut that we’re facing right now, it’s another eight-to-15 deputies that could be lost during this next go round," Knezovich said. "The commissioners say you’re going to have some public meetings. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for your voice to be heard.”
And at Tuesday evening’s budget hearing held by the county commissioners, it was.
“First off I’d like to say to all of you that you should be ashamed of yourself for even thinking of taking the sheriff’s budget.”
Marilyn Cline was one of a few dozen volunteers for the Sheriff Community Oriented Policing Effort, or SCOPE, who attended this hearing. She and her colleagues do tasks that deputies would ordinarily handle, such as traffic control. That frees officers to focus on handling calls. Most volunteers, like Cline, were clad in their green shirts and jackets.
“All of you have run on public safety and we are well beyond that. This is not about the sheriff. This is about our public safety as the people in this society, which we can barely supply now,” she said.
Andrew Stockman, who works in the sheriff’s department, told commissioners that the department typically has only nine deputies on patrol at a given time.
“Nine deputies for a county that has 1,781 square miles and a combined population of 490,000. There’s no traffic unit, lost due to budget cuts over the years, which was assigned to enforce traffic laws, speed complaints, school zones," Stockman said. "Just to fill the minimum staffing number of nine, deputies are called in on overtime or, as a last resort, a school resource deputy who is assigned to cover a school district around their school is sometimes tasked with patrol duties.”
Venus Delcambre Morris, who coordinates the county’s Neighborhood Watch program, says people have told her that they’re frustrated by the lack of response from police when they call for help. She read comments she has collected from her constituents.
“I stood outside on my porch on the phone, talking to police, as someone was watching me watch them take stuff out of my car. And they said, ‘Go ahead and call. They’re not going to come in time anyway,'" Delcambre Morris said. "Another comment was, ‘Our neighbor has been a terror to our neighborhood. We called the police several times on him. One day he was beating up his girlfriend and it took law enforcement 45 minutes to get here.'
"You know, people all in all are happy with law enforcement when they come and answer calls. It is the time frame that the calls are being answered that is the problem," she said. "The problem is that law enforcement is too understaffed. When you have neighborhoods that are getting involved, that start to get frustrated with the process and give up, you will have neighborhoods that are overrun with crime.”
The commissioners are scheduled to hold another public budget hearing next Tuesday at their regularly scheduled meeting.