Thursday, July 05, 2007

Multnomah County Problems

Arthur Gregg Sulzberger has an article on problems in the operation of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s office. The title and subtitle give the gist:

Sheriff's office at a crossroads
Patrols vs. jails - Budget cuts, shrinking territory and a potential exodus of deputies are threatening the operation

Basic facts Sulzberger points out:

To feel the fall the way law enforcement deputies feel it, you must know what they once were.

Three decades ago, the organization was nearly 300 strong, serving 190,000 people in the county's unincorporated territory . . . .
. . .

Today a 36-deputy patrol force with an $8.5 million budget serves just fewer than 14,000 people and handles about 2 percent of the county's overall crime (down from 20 percent in 1975). Though the population is small, the area is massive: 289 square miles comprising nearly 62 percent of the county.

By contrast with the 36 patrol deputies in law enforcement, “corrections has more than 450 deputies and , it eats up about 85 percent of the sheriff's overall budget.”

Most of the people Sulzberger quoted lean towards consolidating/contracting out law enforcement with surrounding jurisdictions. Maybe that’s coming, but it won’t solve the budget problems. In may increase them.

If 85% of the sheriff’s budget is devoted to corrections, there’s only 15% to work with on law enforcement. And, assuming the county isn’t going to leave 14,000 people to vigilante justice, there will be a price.

Contracting with the City of Portland would actually raise the pay scale paid per officer. Right now entry level Portland police officers get $39,894 entry, $48,714 after six months, $65,374 after five years. Multnomah County deputy pay is: $42,574 to $53,306

You might save $1,350 for the first six months on each Multnomah County officer replaced by a contracted City of Portland officer, but after that you’d be paying anywhere from $6,000 a year to $12,000 a year more for each deputy (which may be why so many Multnomah County deputies are applying for City of Portland entry level positions). Contracting out doesn’t sound like such a money saver.

But, even if law enforcement is unified or contracted out, that won’t alleviate the financial crisis with jails. Sulzberger tells us that Multnomah County law enforcement makes only 3% of the arrests in the county. But, it provides 100% of jail beds in Multnomah County--and is not doing too well in that area:

Fifty-seven beds were closed because of budget cuts this month, bringing the total number of available beds to 1,690, 500 fewer than the peak in 2000. The $58 million Wapato Jail remains unopened because of lack of operational money. Meanwhile dozens of inmates are being released each week because of lack of space.

If 97% of arrests work out to a similar percent of incarcerations, the problem is in getting the other jurisdictions that use jail facilities to pay a share of operational expenses for the space their inmates use. But, the current operational model is that the county funds all jailing costs for any jurisdiction in the county. It’s not working. The result is fewer and fewer jail beds even after investing $58 million dollars in a new jail facility.

Which brings me to the main problem: inept county government. When there are funding problems, the commissioners haven’t acted as though operating expenses need to be covered by those who use a facility--or even by new taxes. Their attitude is “We don’t have the money, and we’re not going to get it.”

There’s a need for Wapato’s jail beds even by a small jurisdiction like Troutdale:

"What we really want from the sheriff's office is jail beds," Troutdale's Nelson says. "Our residents pay city taxes and county taxes. Well, they're getting their law enforcement services with their city taxes, and what they need from their county taxes is jail beds."

So, why isn’t Wapato open and why aren’t Troutdale and other jurisdictions being charged at least part of the operational rate needed to house their inmates there? If you can give the service away for free, fine. But, since the county can’t, it needs to find a way to recoup at least some of the costs of a service it currently gives to other jurisdictions without getting anything back from them.

This is a county commissioner budget problem--not a sheriff’s office budget problem. But instead of fixing the problem, county commissioners want to micro-manage the sheriff’s budget. Go figure.

Last month the county commissioners, backed by a legal opinion from the county attorney, declared their intention to seize control of sheriff's spending. A battle-weary Giusto, who had fiercely guarded his right to spend sheriff's dollars as he saw fit, said he would not fight the board's decision.

Board members may look at further scaling back law enforcement. "We've got 14,000 people now and yet we have a full law enforcement division," says Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey. "I'm not sure that makes sense. This is a place people have held sacred that we can't mess with. Well we need to mess with it. It is not sacred. We need to focus on corrections."

Rojo de Steffey thinks 36 deputies serving 14,000 people living in a 289 square mile area is a “full law enforcement division”. And that 85% of the sheriff’s budget being given to corrections is not focusing on corrections. With analysis like Rojo de Steffey’s we’re in for more trouble.

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