Leiken: Lane County’s Crumbling Public Safety System
On Thursday, November 29, 2012, the Lane County Sheriff’s Office closed another 35 jail beds resulting in the release of more than 30 inmates from the Lane County Jail. By Friday afternoon two of the released inmates were already back – one arrested for robbing a bank and one for unlawful entry and theft.
The release of these inmates from the Lane County Jail is directly related to the significant reduction in federal funding and is indicative of the lack of active management of the federal forests that make up half our land base. I fully support Sheriff Turner and his dedicated staff during this challenging time. They are sworn to protect us, but have been confined by inadequate resources.
Many voices have called for Lane County to move beyond federal timber revenue sharing, yet we cannot ignore the economic potential of the forests amongst which we live. Lane County Commissioners, even this week, continue to debate the form and function of a property tax measure dedicated to supporting the jail. But to fully rebuild a functioning public safety system (jail, patrol, prosecution, youth services, and treatment and prevention) would take more than a doubling of Lane County’s existing property tax. Residents have never supported tax proposals of that size, and there is no reason to expect they will now even in spite of the dismantled state of our public safety system. A property tax increase at this time throws cold water on our fragile recovery and, under Measure 5, the only options available to voters are temporary solutions. What’s more, those options could actually impinge on the tax revenue of our community’s fire, school, city, and other taxing districts.
Lane County’s partnership with the federal government goes all the way back to 1906, when the first national forests were created and County Commissioners throughout the West lobbied Congress to create a mechanism that would replace tax revenue lost by creating enormous amounts of publicly owned lands. Congress has all but completely walked away from this promise. I thank Congressmen DeFazio, Walden, and Schrader, and Governor Kitzhaber for forcing a dialogue to find a way to ensure both the essential ecosystem and the crucial revenue that provides for the security of Lane County families.
What we’ve seen this week – what we’ve seen as our system has eroded over the last several years – is the result of the reduction of tens of millions of real dollars. It cannot be blamed on uncontrollable cost, bad management, or waste. No single, immediate solution will fix our system. We need a long term solution to a sustainable public safety system that lays out the incremental steps to get there. We are committed to identifying such a cohesive strategy.
Sid Leiken is Chair of the Lane County Board of Commissioners
Citizens For A Safer Lane County Political Action Committee
Lane County Public Safety is defined as “The prevention of and protection from events that could endanger the safety of the general public from significant danger, injury/harm, or damage, such as crimes or disasters (natural or man-made).”
Public safety has drastically deteriorated in Lane County since the loss of Timber Receipts. To off-set this, the Federal Government has been providing funds to Lane County’s General Fund. With the work of many (including local citizens and your elected officials), the Federal Government has renewed this funding for several additional years up-to and including 2012. The funding started at approximately 53 million dollars for the year and has been reduced each year. For the 2012 year, the renewal was about 3.5 Million dollars. We believe this 2012 year was a long stretch getting these funds and there are no plans to renew it for 2013.
It is out of great concern for both the safety of the deputies, the citizens of Lane County and the institution of Lane County government that we inform you, our citizens.
In March-August of 2012, the Lane County Sheriff had to eliminate 67 positions in the Sheriff’s Office to meet the budget requirements. This resulted in the loss of several patrol deputies to respond to emergency calls for service and left coverage to only 18 hours each day (Just to be average in Patrol the “Lane County Sheriff’s Office” would need to add 151 more deputies), the loss of additional jail beds leaving only 152 beds for local offenders (just to be average in Oregon the “Lane County Sheriff’s Office” would need to add 474 more jail beds), reduction in services like Mental Health, Alternative Programs and Parole and Probation (which do not supervise any misdemeanor crimes anymore).
Normal county patrol (which covers the entire county) now only has 3 Deputies and a Sergeant assigned to dayshift and 3 Deputies with a Sergeant on Swingshift. This adds risk to the Lane County Deputies responding to any situation when they are needed. Consistently releasing pre-trial offenders back into the community due to lack of funded jail beds enhances the call load and risk to not only the responding deputies, but the citizens as a whole. Line of duty deaths have consistently increased throughout the nation and Oregon is not exempt. In 2009, there were 139 Line of Duty Deaths of Officers. 2010, there were 172 and 2011, there were 173. 2012 is fast approaching.
The Lane County Commissioners have been informed that the public has been put at risk because of their inability to hold dangerous offenders in our County Jail due to inadequate funding. This has been brought to the Board’s attention a number of times in the past by Circuit Court Judges, Police Chiefs, citizens, the District Attorney and Sheriff. The problem is… There just isn’t enough money…
It is the Sheriff’s sworn duty to “Conserve the Peace” which translates to ‘protect the public,’ and it is also his obligation to protect the Sheriff’s Office and Lane County from liability (i.e. your tax dollar). Our Lane County population is at risk, our deputies are at risk, and our economic growth is at risk when people don’t feel safe.
The Board of Commissioners have been advised by nearly all of Lane County’s criminal justice authorities, including those from the treatment community, that we need to open more jail beds to both keep the public safe and to make treatment programs work.
We are a voluntary non-profit, incorporated, Political Action Committee of persons interested in the public safety issues relating to Lane County and we are not affiliated with any government or political party. The Committee has been created to participate directly and indirectly in the political campaigns of individuals for elective office, educating the citizens of Lane County as well as to participate in legislative proposals which affect Lane County Public Safety.
A website has been published for your information. Visit “CitizensForASaferLaneCounty.com” and follow the issues. Sign up for the newsletter and help us fight the battle of “Public Safety” in Lane County with your donations (your donation may be tax deductable).
Thank you for your time in helping us combat this important issue.
Citizens For A Safer Lane County
Government Reform for Greater Transparency and New Management Strategies
In August, this community experienced the first act of a longer drama about this county budget when the Lane County Commissioners received news of a $2 million budget shortfall. This shortfall had the commissioners making decisions between the poor, sick and homeless versus the safety of our community. At the last minute, the shortfall was revised down to $800,000.
One department, Public Safety, was cut by $500,000. Public safety is the most essential service of county government. Will criminals be running loose in the streets?
There are more cuts coming. Act Two of this drama will continue to unfold if state projections fall short, federal funding and other surprises force our commissioners and the administrator to redefine essential county services.
Our county administrator made a simple recommendation: reduce the “lapse” in many of the departments, including a core service of county government public safety. Lapse is the difference between the number of budgeted employees and the actual number of active employees on the job in Lane County. Vacant positions are currently kept on the books for budget purposes.
Some vacant but budgeted positions go unfilled for months, maybe even years, because it may be difficult to find the qualified candidate, compensation packages are insufficient or other personnel issues. These funds and positions are not subtracted even when they do not actually contribute to the stated purposes when the Budget Committee approves the department’s budget.
When the gap between budgeted employees and actual active employees is accumulated, those surplus funds are absorbed into the department and can be used for whatever the department director wants. It has similar advantages to an invisible reserve account for individual departments. This practice creates bloated budgets that camouflage the actual cost for essential services for county citizens.
This is the time to change this common practice. Departments should not hold open unfilled vacancies which can become slush funds and used for other purposes. The money should be returned to the general fund not as a carry-over resource for that department, but reduced from the department’s budget as unneeded and reallocated by the administrator. It is disingenuous to taxpayers in these challenging times to use what-you-see-is-not-what-you-get budgeting. It hides the real cost of essential services from taxpayers and elected officials.
Lane County government needs to earn back taxpayers’ trust. In Act Three, commissioners, budget committee members and administration should keep boots-on-the-ground, butts-in-the-jail and rocks-on-the-road with transparent budgeting. The good news: Act One of this drama, we have started the process early of a simplified, truthful county budgeting process that is long overdue.
Having Jail Space Only Solution to Effective Incarceration and Rehabilitation
Most people don’t differentiate between “prison” and “jail”. As far as most of us are concerned, as long as the “bad guys” are locked up in a small room with bars and a stainless steel toilet, it really doesn’t really matter what we call the facility, but jail and prison are very different animals that house different populations and meet very different community needs. A healthy community needs both local jail capacity and access to prison space for its most serious offenders.
Prisons are state-run facilities that hold felons who have been sentenced to serve more than a year in custody, while jails are local facilities that house those who are awaiting trial, including those awaiting trial on the most serious felony charges, and those who have been sentenced to serve short periods of incarceration for violating probation or committing misdemeanor crimes like DUII, simple assault and theft. Although it’s important for misdemeanor wrongdoers to be punished, local jails play a more critical role in the criminal justice system: they give force to judicial orders. I’m talking about orders to attend trial, order to participate in anger management counseling and orders to follow through with drug treatment.
Judges, like parents of young children, must have the ability to enforce the rules they make. Unfortunately, when it comes to a group of criminal offenders who typically have no tangible assets, the only enforcement power that matters is the ability to incarcerate. The system fails in dozens of tragic and expensive ways once criminals understand that the loss of jail capacity has rendered the judges “toothless”. That’s where Lane County stands today with respect to property criminals, and the consequences are doing great harm to victims, taxpayers and offenders.
Some might think that the inability to incarcerate is a windfall for the criminals. That’s certainly true for some of them, but for many, perhaps even most of them, the lack of local supervision and jail space is depriving them of a real shot at meaningful rehabilitation. Similarly, some in the community believe that failing to fund a jail is saving money that could be better spent elsewhere, but we’re not saving at all. We’re ensuring more victimization, more insurance costs and higher prison populations, all of which ultimately cost us much more. We’re also paying in lost quality of life and lost business opportunities, because we feel less comfortable in our community and few businesses would choose to relocate to an area with property crime rates among the worst in the country. In sum, we’re being “penny wise and pound foolish”. We’ve struck a balance that represents the worst of all possible worlds: we’re forcing a system design which does less, at greater costs, with disastrous results. That’s a shame, particularly when we have the local talent and expertise to deliver an optimized system capable of delivering more of everything for less. We can do better.