Sheriff Rob Nou discussed the potential consequences of reducing patrol staff with the County Council
Friday, Jul 13 2012 - At the conclusion of the County Council’s July 10 budget discussion, Member Rich Peterson summed up the situation by concluding, “If the public safety sales tax doesn’t pass, nothing’s safe. If it does pass, we’ve still got problems.”
Proposition One on the August 7 primary ballot is a 3/10th of one percent County Public Safety Sales tax which would produce approximately $600,000 for the County and $400,000 for the Town of Friday Harbor. The County’s current budget projections show that next year revenues will fall $800,000 short of the amount needed to simply maintain the current level of County services and staffing. The shortfall totals approximately $3.6 million for budgets in 2013 through the end of 2015.
“If the Public Safety Sales Tax is approved, we can protect the Sheriff’s Department and the criminal section of the Prosecutor’s office from cuts,” County Administrator Pro Tem Robert Jean told the Council. “Otherwise, after going through five years of budget cutting, there aren’t enough other places left where we can cut.”
The County Administrator Pro Tem’s early budget report, which offered “cuts only” budget balancing strategies, estimated that 14 county positions will have to be eliminated if the Public Safety Sales Tax should fail. Seven full-time equivalent positions will still have to be eliminated if it passes.
Sheriff Rob Nou, looking at the prospect of staff reductions, noted that his force is already stretched thin providing 24-hour a day coverage on multiple islands and, unlike mainland agencies, they have no backup. “There are no city police departments that we call for backup and no state troopers.”
Nou expressed concern about reaching a tipping point in providing law enforcement protection. “These Islands are exceptionally safe places, there isn’t any place on any of these islands where anyone can’t safely walk at pretty much any hour of the day or night.” If budget cutting and staff reductions continue, he warned, “At some point we will lose that sense of safety and security and once lost I don’t think you can ever spend your way out of that.”
Prosecuting Attorney Randall Gaylord endorsed Nou’s statement and encouraged citizens to back the sales tax proposal. “It is a reasonable amount to pay for most people, 30 cents on every 100 dollars [groceries, prescription drugs and other items are exempt], and it’s paid by visitors to the island and residents alike . . .which is fair because both contribute to the cost of public safety.”
During the Council discussion, every member of the County Council endorsed the need to protect the budgets of the Sheriff’s and Prosecutor’s offices and essential Court Services, but Council Chair Patty Miller pointed out that previous rounds of cuts have left little room elsewhere for the scale of budget cuts that will be required.
Forty-three percent of the County’s general fund budget is dedicated to Law and Justice programs, and nearly half of the revenue that funds all of the County’s core programs cannot be used to fill the budget shortfall because the funds are either legally earmarked for a specific use, generated as fees for service, or are restricted grant or matching funds.
After several minutes of discussion in which Miller sought consensus on positions that could be eliminated to balance just the 2013 budget, she noted, “Okay, we have identified 1.65 positions, if the Public Safety Sales Tax fails, we need eight.”
Council Member Lovel Pratt questioned Administrator Pro Tem Jean’s proposal to cut deeply enough at one time to keep the service and staffing levels stable for the next three years, rather than dealing with only next year, hoping that additional revenue can be found or structural changes made which might reduce the amount of cuts required.
Member Richard Fralick endorsed Jean’s longer term approach saying of short-term budget reductions, “That’s death by a 1000 cuts. We need to look at restructuring how we do business.”
The discussion concluded with Council requests for more detailed information and analysis of some different potential cost-saving strategies; and general agreement that voter approval of the Public Safety SalesTax will be necessary to avoid reductions that Council Members Peterson and Howie Rosenfeld both described as “Ugly.”