VANCOUVER — More than two dozen citizens gathered last night to hear Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins discuss how his office might cope with County Manager Mark McCauley’s proposal to cut more than $2 million from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office budget next year.
The town hall-style meeting, held at the Three Creeks Community Library in Salmon Creek on Thu., Nov. 3, was the first of three community meetings Atkins has planned for November. The next meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m., Wed., Nov. 9, at the Camas Public Library, 625 N.E. 4th Ave., Camas. A third town hall is scheduled for 6:30 to 8 p.m., on Thu., Nov. 10, at the Battle Ground Community Center, 912 E. Main St., Battle Ground.
Sheriff Atkins told the crowd gathered at Thursday night’s town hall that his office was doing everything it could to avoid cutting any personnel, including sheriff’s deputies and employees who work at the county jail.
“We’re doing the best we can to provide the services you expect,” Atkins told the packed room. “The population keeps growing and calls for services keep growing … where we are right now (in terms of staffing levels) is not good enough, so more reductions? I’ll do whatever I can to mitigate that.”
McCauley’s budget includes funding for one-time expenses for the sheriff’s office, including $833,000 to pay for suicide-prevention measures at the county jail, $535,000 to replace a failing boathouse and dock for the sheriff’s marine patrol unit, and $200,000 to improve safety and security in the sheriff’s office’s reception areas. Those expenses are all funded through real estate excises taxes, Atkins explained. But the county manager’s budget also calls for cuts to the sheriff’s office, including $526,000 general reduction in sheriff’s office’s expenditures to help balance the county’s budget, a $828,000 reduction in funding for the sheriff’s office’s fleet of vehicles. The sheriff’s office also faces a $1.3 million loss now that the Vancouver Police Department has terminated a joint records unit contract between the two entities. In total, the sheriff’s office is looking at about $2.7 million in budget cuts during the 2017-2018 budget period.
“The first thing we did (after McCauley presented his budget to the county councilors in September), besides panic, was start planning,” Atkins told the public gathered at the Thursday night meeting. “As an elected official, my job is to serve you. You put us where we’re at. You pay the bills and we want your input. We want to know, what do you not want to see cut?”
The sheriff’s town halls are designed to get the public’s input about what their priorities would be if the sheriff’s office needs to make cuts next year.
Quiet at first, the community members started to speak up after Atkins described some of the programs that could be eliminated or put on hold if McCauley’s proposed budget goes through.
Most said they wanted to see more sheriff’s deputies present in their neighborhoods and agreed with the sheriff’s plan to possibly allow deputies to take their patrol cars home at night. Giving each deputy their own vehicle instead of maintaining a pool of cars helps ensure that each sheriff’s office vehicle is better maintained and cared for and leads to a feeling of greater patrol presence in the various neighborhoods where deputies live.
Others said they hoped the sheriff’s office would reconsider its plan to possibly cancel its reserve deputy and citizen academies over the next two years. The reserve deputy program costs about $100,000 a year, but does provide trained, volunteer reserve deputies to assist the sheriff’s office, which is still recovering from the economic downturn of 2008 and, Atkins said, still about 16 deputies short of being fully staffed.
Currently, the sheriff’s office spends the vast majority of its $55 million budget — 79 percent — on wages and benefits for its personnel. Another 12 percent goes toward things like inmates’ medical services and contract security costs. Five percent is for supplies, including food for the inmates at the jail and fuel costs, and four percent goes toward other governmental agreements.
Undersheriff Mike Cooke, who joined the Clark County Sheriff’s Office in 1994, told the crowd that he and Sheriff Atkins wanted to be clear that, with the cuts proposed by McCauley, the sheriff’s office was facing a tough choice: Do they cut personnel or do they try to eliminate programs instead?
“With $2 million in cuts, unless we cut sheriff’s deputies or our corrections deputies (at the jail), there’s really nowhere else to go,” Cooke said Thursday night. “We have so much potential with the programs we have, but this really comes down to cutting programs or cutting staff and we can’t afford to lose the people.”
Nothing is set in stone yet, Atkins said, but if county councilors approve McCauley’s proposed 2017-2018 budget, the sheriff’s office will consider cutting things like the planned expansion of the re-entry program, which helps inmates transition from jail back into society and reduces their risk of re-offending.
“This is a super-vital, highly recognized program,” Atkins said of the sheriff’s office’s current re-entry program. “When inmates leave the jail, if they have a dependency or mental health issues … and they don’t have someone there to hold their hand, they may slip up, go back to their dealer.”
The re-entry program, Atkins said, has shown great success at helping inmates get the basic assistance they need before transitioning back into society. But the program is small, he explained, and can’t help every inmate. The sheriff’s office had hoped to expand the re-entry program and was even discussing ways to help inmates who come into the jail addicted to heroin — something Atkins said is at epidemic levels in Clark County, with county needle exchange programs currently handing out more than a million needles a year to the area’s heroin addicts.
“We need to do the best we can to help these people when they’re out (of jail),” Atkins said. “The re-entry program is an important part of that and we were looking to expand it, but (the expansion) is another thing that may be on the chopping block.”
Another cost-savings could come from closing the central precinct in Brush Prairie, a building that was planned to be a temporary facility for sheriff’s deputies nearly 20 years ago and is, Atkins said, too small to accommodate the public, much less the number of sheriff’s deputies currently utilizing the building. Although the county owns the central precinct building, Atkins said closing the precinct and moving the deputies to the west precinct could save on fixed costs such as utility bills and building maintenance.
Toward the end of the sheriff’s town hall on Thursday evening, Clark County Councilor David Madore spoke to the crowd and said this is the first year that the county manager, instead of the county councilors, has put together the proposed county budget and that McCauley’s budget reflects a “a major shift in priorities” that emphasizes general administration over the sheriff’s department.
“Media reports have falsely led citizens to believe that our county budget is facing deep cuts and that’s why our sheriff must suffer the loss of $2.7 million. The county manager’s budget includes $7.5 million in new debt, two one-percent property tax increases, and substantial fee hikes,” Madore explained. “That is not a balanced budget, nor is it wise financial management that lives within its means. The proposed general budget is not a cut at all. It is a huge jump in spending. Our last budget, adopted two years ago, was for $295 million. The county manager’s new budget is more than $321 million.”
When Madore reminded the crowd that McCauley’s budget was only a proposal and that county councilors could still make changes to the proposed budget, adding that he wanted to see the sheriff’s department be the county’s number one priority, the crowd erupted in applause.
“Clark County has had the fastest growing economy in the state since mid-2013. Tax revenue is pouring in at such a healthy pace, that our budget office called it a windfall. There is no need to add new debt, to raise taxes or to cut our sheriff’s budget,” Madore said.
County Councilor Marc Boldt also joined Thursday night’s meeting. He did not speak to the proposed cuts to the sheriff’s department, but did thank citizens for showing up to participate in Sheriff Atkins’ town hall.
After the meeting, several citizens stuck around to chat with the sheriff and to pick up information about the county council’s budget process.
Nick Valentine, a Hazel Dell resident, said he has lived in the area for nearly 20 years, has three sons enrolled in Clark County schools, and came to the town hall to better understand what was happening to the sheriff’s office budget.
“I would like to see more presence in my neighborhood,” Valentine said. “And I’m concerned because the sheriff’s office is underfunded.”
Valentine said he planned to collect his thoughts on the matter and attend the county councilors’ budget hearings in early December.
The Clark County Board of Councilors will hold a public hearing for the Clark County 2017-2018 biennial budget at 2 p.m., Mon., Dec. 5, and at 6 p.m., Tue., Dec. 6. Both hearings will be held in the Councilors’ Hearing Room on the sixth floor of the Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St., Vancouver. Although the public is welcome to attend both hearings, public testimony will be taken only at the Tue., Dec. 6 hearing. For more information about the proposed county budget, visit the county’s website at www.clark.wa.gov/budget/documents.